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Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's 'Road Show' finally hits New York

November 18, 2008 |  6:04 pm

'Road Show' 

Odds are that many of the critics who went ape for "Billy Elliot: The Musical," finding it a testament "to the power of the human spirit" to such an extent that all flaws were forgiven, will approach "Road Show" with daggers drawn. 

No sentimental puppy, 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.   

This most recent incarnation of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's long-aborning work -– formerly known as "Wise Guys," "Gold!" and "Bounce" (yes, the road for "Road" has been circuitous) -- has finally made it to New York, where it opened Tuesday at the Public Theater in a production directed by John Doyle. A small and boxy show, performed without an intermission, it's a relatively minor addition to the Sondheim canon.  But minor Sondheim is infinitely more interesting than the major offerings of most anyone else who passes for a musical-theater composer these days.

The story, inspired by a New Yorker article Sondheim came across when he was just a few years out of college, revolves around the Mizner brothers, two fiendish go-getters who ran riot across the country in the first three decades of the 20th century looking for an outlet for their multiple hidden talents.  Their goals were the usual American ones of life, liberty and the pursuit of wealth, and their methods ranged from that of overreaching artists to no-holds-barred con men.

Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd in Doyle's acclaimed 2005 Broadway revival) takes on the role of Wilson, the more unscrupulous of the two siblings, who won and lost a bundle in gambling, opened a saloon, tried his luck on Broadway as a writer and eventually glommed on to his brother's success, which was an equally up-and-down affair. 

Addison, played by Alexander Gemignani, has a devil of a time figuring out what he's really good at, although his lifelong passion for architecture ultimately leads him to become the man who builds Liberace-worthy mansions for the rococo rich in Florida.  For this he has not just his idiosyncratic talent for excess to thank but also Hollis Bessemer (Claybourne Elder), a handsome young man with no direction and a bevy of rich contacts. 

Addison and Hollis' love story (which gets its own marvelous romantic ballad in "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened") is overshadowed by the unbreakable bond between Addison and Wilson.  The saga of the brothers' relationship can get frustratingly blurry (time lines and details are confusingly telescoped), but then they're two sides of the same coin, and morally speaking, it should be challenging to tell them apart.    
Doyle, who also designed the set -- a pile of stacked furniture ready for shipping that becomes a multilevel playing area for the principals and chorus -- treats the show as a parable about the American Dream, complete with an oh-so-timely land rush and housing bust.    

Musical echoes from Sondheim's catalog swirl throughout in a manner that marks "Road" as more of a distillation than a new direction.  But it's a distillation that only he could have been capable of. 

Collaborating again with Weidman, his partner in "Pacific Overtures" and "Assassins," Sondheim may not have solved all the show's notorious kinks, but an integrated vision about the buying and selling of cherished ideals is boldly (some might say baldly) put forth. 

Broadway's sinking economy may need "Billy Elliot" to chase the dark recessionary clouds away, but I'll take "Road Show," with its human-scale intimacy and darkly spiraling ambiguity.

-- Charles McNulty

Photo: A family scene from "Road Show" at the New York Public Theater.  Photo credit: Joan Marcus