There are some historical characters that cry out for animation on the stage. Stephen Sondheim has fixated on a pair of them in his meandering travelogue Road Show, a historical biographical musical set in the first half of the 20th century.
The pair of characters are brothers, Addison and Wilson Mizner, whose wildly swinging ups and downs of con artistry from chasing gold in the Yukon to tempting big spenders into real estate development hell form the spine of the play.
Road Show still bears the scars of its own development hell, having been reworked by Sondheim and librettist John Weidman for 10+ years. In fact, you may have seen the previous iteration of Road Show as Bounce in 2003 at the Kennedy Center where its lack of success lead to revision and reconstitution into its present form, now playing under the direction of Gary Griffin at Shirlington’s Signature Theatre.
And, much like a dough that has been worked and reworked (and possibly overworked), Road Show is uneven, containing leavened pockets of traditionally brilliant and cheeky classic Sondheim interspersed with some dense, tough scenes that lack flavor and depth. The challenges this musical faces are great, and while Signature’s production captures the joy of the uniqueness of the play, not all of those challenges have been surmounted.
The first and perhaps most obvious challenge lead characters themselves. Road Show follows Addison Mizner (given life in a heartfelt performance by Josh Lamon) as a protagonist, through his estrangement from his family, his worldwide travels, and his eventual discovery of his call as an architect. What is curious about this lead is that he is a sad sack, not only stalked by failure and lacking direction but also moping from place to place and while the sad sack character type is common in musicals, he or she is rarely cast as the lead.
The antagonist, Wilson Mizner (wryly played by Noah Racey), would be a much more typical musical lead, full of bravado and spunk, but the character is as sympathetic as Ayn Rand. This difference creates an interesting tension as their cycles of contention and cooperation drive the conflict of the play, but the result is the audience is made to root for (Addison’s victory) turns out to be destructive to Addison’s own characterization. While Addison gets a beautiful love story with investor and boyish charmer Hollis Bessamer (who’s given a nice combination of sweetness and petulence by talented local Matthew Schleigh) that results in the best moment of the whole Road Show, I found myself wishing that Addison would fail again and more quickly so that I could get the sad sack character back.
Another challenge of the sprawling Road Show is in its sprawl, covering a dozen plus locations that all have environments that are not only disparate, but crucial to the feel of the play. Here, Director Griffin has Set Designer Scott Davis create a unified wooden set with a literal map of the action as backdrop, which lights up cutely to show the current location of the action, while relying on Costume Designer Ivania Stack and on props to establish the traveling feel of this travelogue.
This challenge was generally surmounted well, especially in establishing the Floridian luxury of the second half of the production. Stack’s contrasting posh white costumes and more homespun fare did wonders for establishing class, while changes to both Mizner brothers’ wardrobes clearly indicated their status and feeling at any particular moment in time. Excepting some heavy-handedness in the world-traveling section, the show was brilliantly designed.
The lyrics are, as expected from a Sondheim production, smart and hilarious. It’s easy to tell that these clever rhymes and powerful theatrical moments, like the quick exchanges of “Gold!” or the gorgeous sweetness of “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened,” are the reason that Weidman and Sondheim have doggedly pursued perfecting Road Show for more than a decade. But that wouldn’t surprise any Sondheim fan.
February 16 – March 13, 2016
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206
1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $40 – $87
Check for discounts
What might surprise you is the music. Now, the music isn’t bad. It doesn’t grate, and it fits well with each individual moment. The songs have variety; Road Show is full of familiar song types pioneered or popularized by Sondheim, like the overlapping tension-builder, the plot-advancing patter song, or the belty antagonist’s song. But the music simply isn’t tuneful or catchy or really memorable in any way.
After I see a musical, I’ll usually walk out singing. I’ll sing my favorite couple of songs in the shower (apologies for the image), and I’ll look up song lyrics so I get them right and can fit them to the tune in my head. For Road Show, no matter how many times I looked at the lyrics or listened to Youtube videos, nothing stuck. I know that this criticism isn’t quantifiable (or even qualifiable) and is entirely subjective, but, for a musical, being unable to recall fondly or even remember the music is a big problem.
It is possible that the music of Road Show is actually brilliant and merely hits a spot in my brain that doesn’t have any grip. But combined with plotting difficulties and some character awkwardness, this musical left me less than satisfied. I’d recommend Road Show for the Sondheim completionist, someone that has particular affinity for the subject matter, or someone who wants to compare what they saw at the Kennedy Center in 2003 with this final product, but not for the casual theater-goer.
Road Show with Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by John Weidman. Directed by Gary Griffin . Featuring Erin Driscoll, Sheri Edelen, Stefan Alexander Kempski, Jacob Kidder, Jason J. Labrador, Josh Lamon, Jake Mahler, Dan Manning, Angela Miller, Noah Racey, Matthew Schleigh, and Bobby Smith . Set Design: Scott Davis . Costume Design: Ivania Stack . Lighting Design: Joel Shier . Sound Design: Lane Elms . Music Direction: John Kalbfleisch . Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein . Produced by Signature Theatre . Review by Alan Katz.