Friday, April 11, 2014

Strong Production Should Satisfy Sondheim-o-philes, but 'Road Show' Feels a Bit Too Specific in Its Destination -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Road Show
a musical by Stephen Sondheim
book by John Weidman
directed by Gary Griffin
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Thru May 4

Beyond a great desire to see Road Show at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, I felt a need, even an obligation.

I am a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim and the musicals he has created, and have seen nearly all of them, including productions of six works--one twice--director Gary Griffin has helmed at the CST.

All of these have been outstanding, including in recent years Follies, Sunday in the Park with George and just last month, Gypsy, in whose rave review I said I couldn't wait to see Road Show.

Also, in 2003 at the Goodman Theatre, I saw the world premiere production of Bounce. This was a musical about brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner that Sondheim had on his mind for years, developed with book writer John Weidman and workshopped as Wise Guys in 1999, eventually retitled Gold and won legal battles to have staged at the Goodman as Bounce

The cast included Broadway notables and the production--which would also be produced at the Kennedy Center in Washington--was directed by the legendary Harold Prince, long a Sondheim collaborator.

Although I didn't find Bounce to be sensational, I liked it enough to see it twice, and eagerly bought the cast recording (of the Goodman/Washington version; the show never made it to Broadway).

Well, the musical further gestated into Road Show, which played at the Public Theater in 2008, and from which another cast recording was released and finalized script & score subsequently licensed.

Hence, it wasn't just an affinity for CST's Sondheim renditions--which I've attended far more frequently than anything by the theater's namesake Bard--but a true curiosity to see what had become of Bounce that not only enticed me to attend, but pretty much demanded it.

Photo credit for all: Liz Lauren
That the CST was staging Road Show as a complement to the much more famous Gypsy was also compelling, as was the fact that the now 84-year-old Sondheim hasn't since written anything that has been publicly presented.

Though admittedly as a bit of a crash course, I did my homework before attending Wednesday's matinee of Road Show. I listened to the recording several times, including reading along with the lyrics and Mr. Sondheim's detailed notes in his Look I Made a Hat compendium.

And I should note that many has been a Sondheim show--typically earmarked by considerable depth and sophistication--that I have come to better appreciate over time.

But while I genuinely liked this Road Show and heartily applaud another superlative staging by Griffin and Chicago Shakespeare--with trademark terrific performances and production values--I can only strongly recommended it to Sondheim acolytes interested in seeing it for reasons approximating mine.

This may be a relatively small group of people, but far from infinitessimal, as with my performance--in CST's 200-seat upstairs theater--being essentially full and no discount tickets that I've yet seen on HotTix or Goldstar, I imagine there are many Sondheim devotees coming to rare staging of Road Show, including from out of town.

I assume most will value seeing it and appreciate much to like, but doubt many will find the show itself on par with Sondheim's numerous masterpieces.

Local actor Michael Aaron Lindner, whom I have seen do fine work on many areas stages, may well be at his very best as Addison Mizner, the less flamboyant and more historically accomplished of the two brothers. (His architecture shapes much of Boca Raton, Florida.)

Though he has far from a brotherly resemblance to Lindner, Andrew Rothenberg is well-sung and appropriately conniving as the more dashing-and-devious Wilson Mizner.

As I expected, the cast was fully-populated by talented performers, including Larry Adams, McKinley Carter, Anne Gunn, Robert Lenzi and ensemble members who also played instruments on-stage. Matt Deitchman was a constant on piano, and notably good under the musical direction of Michael Mahler.

But even with the cast delivering the material in a delectable manner, the near 2-hour intermission-less staging too rare imbued me with the giddy buoyancy that Gypsy and other Sondheim shows have, particularly at this venue.

Being a Sondheim work, Road Show is rather tuneful and has some great wit & wisdom in its lyrics. As my @@@@ should honestly convey, I enjoyed it much more than I didn't.

Yet whether due to the constraints of the story line itself, the years of tinkering or just a little less than supreme inspiration from its masterful composer, in full Road Show just didn't feel that spectacular--and at times even seemed leaden.

I can't say I much cared about either or both Mizner brothers, and much more troubling was that too few of the songs seemed superlative.

Or felt universal.

What I usually love about Sondheim shows is that each musical, and most every one of the songs within, has a universality that transcends what the story or tune is acutely about.

Though Road Show can be seen as a metaphor for chasing the American Dream, or as Chris Jones suggests in his 4-star (out of 4) review, autobiographical of Sondheim and Weidman, it--and particularly a set of songs that recitatively moves the Mizners' biography along--didn't impart (to me) many insights far beyond the subject matter at hand.

As I've been writing this, I've been listening to the cast recording of Bounce, which is reiterating my thought that Sondheim should have left more of the songs alone.

For example, the opening song "Bounce" is now reworked--with the same melody but entirely different lyrics--as "Waste."

Perhaps it better sets up the narrative, but the new song just isn't as much fun.

And that may be the overriding problem. Road Show is fine, very fine in parts, and excellently enacted at a venue that has done Sondheim better than anyone I've seen.

But it's lost some of its bounce and, relatively speaking, just isn't all that much fun.

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