Review: “Road Show”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
When: through May 4
Tickets: $48-$68
Phone: 312-595-5600

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Road Show” is moving in the right direction.

The musical that started as “Wise Guys” (1999), then premiered at the Goodman Theatre as “Bounce” (2003) and made its debut in the present incarnation at New York’s Public Theater (2008) has become more focused and darker along the way. The fictionalized story of the Mizner brothers and their American Dream gone awry now has a stronger narrative flow and an emotional heart.

A good deal of the credit goes to director Gary Griffin, a superb Sondheim interpreter (he also directed “Gypsy,” which closed March 23 in CST’s Courtyard Theater) who understands that less is more. He’s pared the staging to the essentials. A long, slanting platform — the road — and a world map on the back wall dominate Scott Davis’ scenic design, while simple props include the souvenirs Addison Mizner picks up on his travels, models of the lavish homes he builds for his Palm Beach clients, and the instruments ensemble members play to supplement the work of pianist Matt Deitchman (Tom Vendafreddo beginning Apil 22). Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes deftly deal with the long period covered by the action. Ray Nardelli’s sensitive sound design and the lack of amplification are big boons in the intimate space.

While Sondheim originally envisioned the show as — well, bouncy Broadway fare, and was fascinated by Wilson Mizner, the charming con man who was always eager to gamble on get-rich-quick schemes, this version shifts attention to older brother Addison, the more responsible, risk-adverse one. The pattern established in the early days of the Yukon gold rush is the same as before: Addison does the hard work (finding their claim), then Wilson squanders the results (buying a saloon), and they go their separate ways until Wilson reenters Addison’s life and ruins it again. But presenting it from Addision’s point of view deepens the pain of the brothers’ love-hate relationship, from the opening number “Waste,” when they’re actually both dead, through the series of flashbacks with escalating consequences.

Michael Aaron Lindner’s remarkable performance as Addison helps enormously. He’s the epitome of the big, sensitive schlub who’s always screwing up, always being put upon, always the vulnerable push-over, yet capable of outbursts of anger if pushed too far and of stinging sarcasm when it’s needed. In “Addison’s Trip,” the humorous saga of his post-Yukon travel misadventures, we feel both his financial losses and experiential gains right along with him. When the Mama (Anne Gunn) he cares for so tenderly clearly prefers the more flamboyant Wilson, his quiet sadness is palpable, as is his fierce reaction when his wayward rival for her affection arrives too late. His efforts to find his path in life inspire empathy, so when he realizes it’s architecture, we root for him. And “The Best Thing that Has Ever Happened,” his duet with Hollis Bessemer (Robert Lenzi), the rich (though disinherited) young man he simultaneously adores and exploits, is one of Sondheim’s sweetest love songs, making the way Wilson destroys their affair by enlisting the unwitting Hollis in his Boca Raton, Fla. land-sale scam so much worse.

Another change for the better is the elimination of a romantic subplot involving Wilson and a woman he meets in the Yukon who keeps popping up in his life. We see him steal the wealthy Myra Yerkes (McKinley Carter), Addison’s first real client, away and marry her, but it’s just one of his many drug-fueled exploits as he goes from prize-fighter manager to playwright and beyond. Andrew Rothenberg captures the fast-talking, weasel-y nature of this reckless wastrel, but he doesn’t have the charm that would explain why anyone would fall for his schemes, much less for him. I found myself buying Addison’s hatred but not the love that’s supposed to bind the brothers together.

Two other aspects of “Road Show” still need some work. Weidman’s book is episodic by nature, and the repetitive quality becomes a little tiresome, even as it reinforces the pitfalls of pursuing fortune and fame — not what Papa (Larry Adams), as his ghost reminds Addison, had in mind when he told his son’s to go forth, seize the possibilities presented by the new century, and make him proud. In addition, the ending comes rather abruptly, without a clear enough explanation of the bust following the Boca Raton boon or how both Mizners ended up in Hollywood.

The music and lyrics aren’t Sondheim’s best by any means, but they do showcase his characteristic wit. It’s also fun to hear echoes of his earlier musicals — and to try to identify them.

On the bright side, Griffin’s production is as good as any I can imagine. The ensemble of twelve is wonderfully versatile and in fine voice, though I wish a few (including Adams) had more of a chance to display their talents. Be that as it may, at the end, the brothers Mizner head up the road with a sly in joke about getting it right next time. Certainly, their creators are closer than ever!