Thursday, November 20, 2008

Road Show


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Dir. John Doyle. Public Theatre. (CLOSED)

Sondheim returns and the fans are divided. Would we expect it any other way? In this case, though, his long-gestating musical with John Weidman about the legendary American con men, the Mizner Brothers, has been around the block so many times (under three separate titles) that some critics went into John Doyle's minimalist new production already wary. Even admirers of the show found it "minor Sondheim" but captivating nonetheless, while the remainder of critics fell between dutiful reverence and outright disgruntlement.

USA Today A
(Elysa Gardner) Though set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Road Show is as deft an indictment of capitalism run amok as any recent political missive...It's a briskly entertaining, haunting, cautionary tale for those who would covet riches recklessly or with shallow motives...Let's hope, given our own tough times, that Road Show can find another home when it completes this limited run.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) A small show about big ideas, an intelligent, fascinating examination of the American psyche, both good and bad...In this latest incarnation, director John Doyle has made an enormous contribution...He's helped Sondheim and Weidman clarify the story, stripping it down to essentials...Sondheim's flavorsome score includes his customary tricky wordplay and several haunting melodies.

Philadelphia Inquirer A
(Toby Zinman) A thoroughly contemporary and deeply thoughtful entertainment...Just as Road Show deconstructs the American Dream, so it deconstructs the American musical. John Doyle's risky direction and set design make sure that happens: no costume changes, no set changes, a big cast that never dances and much of the time stands still and silent, looking on. The songs are oddly catchy, tuneful but difficult...All of which is to say that Road Show is wonderfully surprising and enjoyable, and provocative in many ways.

Los Angeles Times A-
(Charles McNulty) The work has the misfortune of being good without being sensational, artistically fascinating yet somewhat choppily constructed. Most damning of all, it refuses to pander, a sin that certain types of theater buffs consider unpardonable. Ask me, I think it's one of the most compelling chamber musicals I've seen in ages...Minor Sondheim is infinitely more interesting than the major offerings of most anyone else who passes for a musical-theater composer these days.

Backstage A-
(David A. Rosenberg) Is it flawless? Well, no, not exactly. But Road Show, as the musical is now called, is more focused and richer than when it was known as Bounce. The new production plays to the strengths of John Weidman's book and director John Doyle’s penchant for the presentational. But the evening defiantly belongs to Sondheim...The score, as orchestrated by the great Jonathan Tunick, is ablaze with signature Sondheim brilliance...The stunning.

Newsday B+
(Linda Winer) Small and sweet and relatively slight. Despite the themes of greed and the betrayals and that ol' demon cocaine, Road Show is that rare creature...a light musical comedy...Doyle, the director who turned actors into the orchestra in Sweeney Todd and Company is a laser of visual and emotional economy. Alexander Gemignani is disarmingly virtuosic as Addison...Michael Cerveris' Wilson, the dark side of American opportunism, slinks resiliently through scams with the exhilaration of the fox pursuing Pinocchio. The actors, Sondheim off one another's expertise as if part of a dream of a Sondheim repertory company.

Chicago Tribune B+
(Chris Jones) Wilson and Addison Mizner were minor figures in American history...But they surely outwitted John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim. The distinguished theater duo of Weidman and Sondheim has spent years trying to nail the Mizner brothers, years trying to turn their eccentric, all-American lives into a metaphor on which to hang a new American musical...The show contains more infectiously beautiful, curious and resonant music and lyrics than any listener has a right to expect...The Mizners have the last laugh, but defeat rarely sounded better.

CurtainUp B+
(Elyse Sommer) Weidman's tightened script for the book and Doyle's streamlined helmsmanship are likely to prompt some nitpicking about unclarified details. But not from this critic...With Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani, both seasoned Sondheim interpreters...the leading roles couldn't be in better hands. Add Jonathan Tunick's fine orchestrations and a golden-voiced ensemble, and Road Show, even though it shows some signs of having been diddled with a bit too much, is a welcome addition to the Sondheim's cannon.

Variety B
(David Rooney) An intimate, almost whimsical musical...Both Cerveris and Gemignani are seasoned Sondheim performers, and each brings his own slightly sour charm to characters we never quite get to know well enough...Less complex than many of his scores, the songs are nonetheless unmistakably Sondheim...Road Show could have used more emotional texture and lucidity in papering its themes onto the brothers' post-mortem, but it's an alluring odyssey...Imperfect as the show is, nobody who cares about musical theater should miss it.

Village Voice B
(Michael Feingold) Unable to dig dramatic developments from this inherently undramatic setup, Sondheim and Weidman sensibly compress it to a bare minimum, then urge us to view it as an American allegory...Fortunately, the show's brevity and speed keep it from becoming laborious. The tone of Doyle's production, harsh and monochrome like its color scheme, rarely enhances but also never hinders the story's onrush. The four principals all mercifully escape the surrounding one-note frenzy...Road Show comes from a lower shelf in Sondheim's cabinet. But it still comes exquisitely, with the artistry of a man whose handiwork is never second-rate...Road Show may disappoint; Sondheim never does.

New Yorker B
(Hilton Als) A potentially complex portrait that isn’t borne out by the text. Weidman gives us sketches, while Sondheim is intent on making a painting. The actors are caught between these two extremes, as is the audience, unsure where to focus...Still, there’s Sondheim to listen to here—all that thought crowding in on itself like a rushing stream. He’s a genius, and no single failure can take that away from him.

Hartford Courant B
(Malcolm Johnson) Rolls merrily along for a time, but finally tilts off the rails...Road Show proves a fascinating work as an essay on the failures of the American Dream. There is wit aplenty across the intermissionless evening, but the sense of misanthropy undercuts the fun. Yet Doyle's staging, which often has the agile Cerveris capering over the bureaus and file cabinets, gives the production a kinetic momentum that is sometimes exhilarating.

Theater News Online B
(Mervyn Rothstein) It's an hour and forty minutes, without intermission, and it seems to fly by so quickly, jumping from one episode to another in the story of the brothers' very American lives. Some of it works, some of it doesn't—and the speed is part of the problem, as it never allows the show to journey much beyond the superficial...Cerveris and Gemignani are just about perfect in their roles, and sing with charm and beauty...Alma Cuervo as their mother is luminous.

The New York Times B-
(Ben Brantley) Murmur a world-weary greeting, if you will, to the trimmed-down, toughened-up and seriously darkened new edition of the musical formerly known as Bounce (in 2003) and Wise Guys (1999) and somewhere along the way, Gold. And, yes, its current version could be said to hold a mirror to a nation in a recessionary hangover after years of overindulgence. But the show’s greatest interest for fans of Mr. Sondheim lies in seeing how what was once meant to be light and buoyant fare has been reshaped into something more somber...The problem is that this musical’s travelogue structure precludes its digging deep. It hints at dark and shimmering glories beneath the surface that it never fully mines.

The Daily News B-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) After all the time and tweaks, the revised version, which opened last night at the Public Theater, is a low-key and modest production...The score is filled with moody melodies and harmonies, as well as phrasings and lyrics that are quintessential Sondheim...What’s missing are numbers with points of view that extend beyond the plot...The show’s bigger sticking point is that it’s built around colorful characters who emerge as pale to the point of being bleached.

The Journal News C+
(Jacques Le Sourd) Though every Sondheim fan will want to see this show...this small show remains oddly tentative...Essentially a 90-minute flashback with music, of the two men's manic, tragic itinerary. Song follows song, with Sondheim's always deft lyrical stylings set to somehow forgettable tunes.

NY Observer C+
(John Heilpern) An honorable misfire...What was intended as a tale of dizzying fraternal ambition and debauchery is a repetitively sour 100-minute slog....This isn’t one of Mr. Sondheim’s masterly scores...but Road Show does include memorable songs...Mr. Doyle has...directed a glumly lifeless production with a static all-purpose set.

New York C
(Eric Grode) Doyle’s austerity jostles uneasily against Sondheim’s boisterous melodies. The top-hat-and-hair-shirt look is no more graceful than it sounds. As before, the predominant musical idiom is the strain of jouncy, vaguely ironic Americana that Sondheim deployed in Assassins...The ensemble work is surprisingly uneven, and [Doyle's] stage conceits—money repeatedly tossed all over the stage, actors screwing in footlight bulbs and then removing them—saps Weidman’s snappy script of the globe-hopping effervescence it once had.

Time Out NY C
(Adam Feldman) Second-rate Sondheim is still better than most people’s best work, but it is weighed down in Road Show by other disappointments. John Weidman’s pell-mell book—which tells the story of William and Addison Mizner, peripatetic brothers in the early 20th century—bears the scars of multiple surgeries: It can’t settle down into any particular style. And John Doyle—who always seems terribly embarrassed to be directing a musical at all—leaches the material of its comedy and vaudeville flair, bathing the production in a glum, brown wash.

The Wall Street Journal C-
(Terry Teachout) I wish I could say it was worth the wait, but Road Show isn't up to the high standards of the creators of Pacific Overtures. The book is flat, the score fluent but pale, and my reluctant guess is that the Public will be the last stop on its long trip.

The Record C-
(Robert Feldberg) The musical, rewritten yet again and with radically new scenery and direction by John Doyle, still doesn’t work. It isn’t terrible; it’s just not very interesting. The show’s subject and its presentation seem to be in basic conflict.

AM New York C-
(Matt Windman) Was it worth all the wait? It pains us to confess that after so much rewriting and so many directors (Sam Mendes, Hal Prince and John Doyle), Road Show probably is the least interesting show in the exalted Sondheim canon...Though the score is character-driven and intelligent, it bears none of the incredible ballads that have sparkled Sondheim’s best musicals. Still, let’s remember that most of Sondheim’s musicals have not received great reviews in their original productions. Down the road, perhaps we’ll change our minds about Road Show.

Washington Post C-
(Peter Marks) Visitors to the Kennedy Center version will recall Bounce as a somewhat jaunty, overblown evening, with a theme that had something to do with the resilience of the brothers...The significantly revised show has dialed down the comic portions and pumped up its more salacious and lugubrious tendencies...The show's streamlinin --it runs under two hours--is a positive step, though even at that length, the story of the Mizner boys overstays its welcome. To be sure, a Sondheim score is as close to a rock-solid insurance policy as the musical theater offers. Still, like so much of what's chronicled in Road Show, it's an asset that the Mizners manage to squander.

Theatermania D
(David Finkle) The unpleasant news about this slaved-over that whatever Sondheim saw in Addie and Willie and their early 20th-century exploits he's unable to project to the audience. The American-dream-as-nightmare thesis that Sondheim and Weidman promoted in their not-dissimilarly-themed trotted out again on wobbly colt's legs...Perhaps the most potent measure of the tuner's deficiencies is something no reviewer thought he'd ever report about Sondheim: The lyrics aren't very good.

Bloomberg News D
(John Simon) Bounce, which I saw in Washington, had commendable aspects: a peripatetic heterosexual love interest in the delightful Michele Pawk, and wonderfully cheeky scenery by Eugene Lee, which turned the Mizners' travels to Alaska and various other countries into colorful vignettes...The worst thing is the new staging and design by Doyle...Road Show is unable to make the Mizners as fascinating as they doubtless were. It remains a seriously ailing proposition for which Doyle has served as overeager gravedigger.

New York Post D-
(Frank Scheck) A major disappointment. This show about the notorious Mizners...never finds the thematic focus it desperately needs...Presented as a sort of vaudevillian musical revue, the show spans multiple decades and locales ranging from Gold Rush-era Alaska to Guatemala. But Weidman's narrative is loose and disjointed, and we feel no emotional involvement in either its characters or situations. The score contains flashes of Sondheim's melodic and lyrical genius...Doyle's both repetitive and static.

Talkin' Broadway D-
(Matthew Murray) The last thing a musical needs if it's been gestating for 10 years is direction by John Doyle, who has yet to demonstrate with any musical he's helmed in New York that he's had any clue what their creators actually wrote...Composer Sondheim and librettist Weidman...[have] spent so much time rewriting and rethinking, the trouble is no longer that their show isn't any good—though it isn't—but that it's no longer much of anything at all.

USA Today A 13; Associated Press A 13; Philadelphia Inquirer A 13; Los Angeles Times A- 12; Backstage A- 12; Newsday B+ 11; Chicago Tribune B+ 11; CurtainUp B+ 11; Variety B 10; Village Voice B 10; New Yorker B 10; Hartford Courant B 10; Theater News Online B 10; The New York Times B- 9; The Daily News B- 9; The Journal News C+ 8; NY Observer C+ 8; Time Out NY C 7; New York C 7; WSJ C- 6; The Record C- 6; AM New York C- 6; WashPo C- 6; Theatermania D 4; Bloomberg News D 4; New York Post D- 3; Talkin' Broadway D-3; TOTAL: 232 / 27 = 8.59 (B-)

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