BOTTOM LINE: Worth seeing (for Sondheim fans especially), but it requires some patience and/or effort, and is probably not for everyone.
I’m hesitant to say much about Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show because I saw the third preview, and it may continue to change until it officially opens. Which would not be surprising- for those who aren’t familiar with Road Show, it had two previous productions- first as Wise Guys (at the NYTW) and then as Bounce (which did not play in NY). Clearly, Sondheim continues to retool this work, as he has done with shows like Merrily We Roll Along and Follies. Road Show is a new Stephen Sondheim musical (with book by John Weidman) which is cause for celebration in itself. And while mediocre Sondheim is better than most everything else, those expecting the emotional pull and artistry of Sunday in the Park With George or Sweeney Todd may be disappointed.
Road Show tells the story of Wilson and Addison Mizner and their efforts to seize opportunities and get rich, from the Alaskan gold rush in the 1890s to the Florida land boom in the 1920s. Although I did not see Bounce, judging from the liner notes the basic plot points have remained essentially the same in Road Show. However, Sondheim has re-purposed and rewritten much of the score, so the show now has a very different feel. From what I can tell from the recording, Bounce seemed to be a show about the Mizner brothers- each had a romantic partner, making the focus of the story fall on both brothers and their struggles and triumphs. Road Show, on the other hand, feels more about Addison Mizner (Alexander Gemignani)- his brother Wilson (Michael Cerveris) is now more of the thorn in his brother’s side, and functions more to drive Addison’s story forward, since whenever Wilson comes back into Addison’s life, Addison has trouble. Nellie, Wilson’s romantic partner in Bounce, is no longer a character, and the importance of Addison’s romantic partner, Hollis Bessemer (Claybourne Elder) now seems to take on greater weight.
Ben Brantley called Bounce “distanced and calculated” and he felt that Sondheim’s craftsmanship, rather than his artistry, dominated Bounce. I felt the same thing about much of Road Show- as opposed to many of Sondheim’s other works, because the first half of Road Show did not engage me as much as I might have expected. It was well-written, and interesting enough, but it felt more like a series of scenes in which we see the misadventures of the Mizner brothers. Indeed, I felt that the show really only started when Addison met Hollis on the train to Florida. Although this happened midway through the piece, everything up until then felt like a long prologue.
Road Show is directed by John Doyle, who became known to NY audiences for directing the recent Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company, in which the cast doubled as the orchestra (they don't here). The set of Road Show (designed by Doyle) is an enormous pile of boxes, filing cabinets, suitcases, trunks, and drawers. At times it seems like an enormous steamship, other times a city of skyscrapers, and other times just a pile of luggage on the floor of a train station. It might also be read as the caravan of a traveling theatre troupe performing their own “road show”, an idea supported by the roving ten-member ensemble, who play the various people the Mizners meet. Costumed in fabric printed with architectual sketches (again highlighting Addison’s increased importance- he is the architect), the ensemble spends most of their time as a background chorus- they sit or stand around this set, which often creates visually interesting tableaus.
To be fair, I think this is a show that will improve with additional viewings- one way of viewing Road Show ’s theme is to say that everything we do in our life- all of our stories and adventures and possessions and relationships- gradually accumulates and makes us who we are. So I think that only by seeing this show multiple times can one begin to appreciate the accumulation that takes place on stage. Nothing is thrown out- and Doyle highlights this throughout the evening.
One example of this is also one of my favorite directorial choices- characters repeatedly take piles of cash and throw it in the air to highlight a point or make a sale or just to communicate with each other. By the end of the show, the stage is covered with bills, highlighting the function of money in this story- the cash is simultaneously foundational necessity, worthless theatrical prop, and expendable commodity. And like this idea of throwing money around, much of Road Show can be interpreted as a metaphor for life in the United States. Sondheim’s Road Show is to some extent a story of American identity. Road Show veers back and both between cynicism and optimism, between scheming for money and honest work- indeed, it seems to parallel much of the double-natured characteristics of our so-called national character.
So is it worth seeing? If you’re a Sondheim fan, absolutely. Road Show has a score that is reminiscent of other Sondheim shows (Assassins, which also featured both Cerveris and Gemignani, is perhaps the most similar in tone). But it isn’t showy or immediately riveting- it is a score that requires attention. The entire cast is excellent, although I think Gemignani was my favorite- his Addison Mizner really roots the show. The design elements are all well done, and work well together. But I should be clear- Road Show does not immediately engage you, and if an audience is looking for emotional catharsis, they will probably not find it here. It goes without saying that Sondheim musicals are not for those looking for “mindless entertainment." But as opposed to some of his more “accessible” shows, like Into the Woods, or shows that work on several different levels (and therefore can appeal to broader audiences), like Follies or Company, Road Show may require some patience and effort. It has its rewards, but they are not immediately visible, much like the gold-filled Alaskan land in which the Mizners first seek their fortune.
(Road Show plays at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, near Astor Place. Show times are Sunday and Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. The show currently runs about 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. Call 212-967-7555 or visit publictheater.org for more info (there are some changes to the above schedule) and to buy tickets. Full price tickets are $70-$80, but student tickets and general rush are available.)