First things first. One should not miss a chance to discover, or for some re-discover, a rarely produced Stephen Sondheim work. This is especially true for an appealing musical production called Road Show now at Signature Theatre. Originally commissioned by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for its silver anniversary in 1996 the currently titled Road Show has had several incarnations since it was first a kernel of an idea for the young Mr. Sondheim some 60 years ago.
Yes, that is correct, 60 years ago. To quote Mr. Sondheim from his book Look, I Made a Hat, what is now Road Show, has been, “a sporadic if mild, obsession – more like an ache than a fever – for much of the rest of my writing life.” And if I read correctly, “rest” refers to a period from about 1953 or so when Mr. Sondheim was a co-scripter for a short-lived television series that many an older Baby Boomer may recall from their very small screen, black-and-white television youth, Topper. Now that is quite a “mild obsession” indeed.
What is now Road Show was the third collaboration between Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book). Assassins, and Pacific Overtures were the two others. This Signature production is directed by Gary Griffin, who has brought his well-regarded 2014 Chicago Shakespeare Theater staging of Road Show to the DC area.
Over its theatrically bumpy life, Road Trip has moved through several renditions and titles; Wise Guys (1998), to Bounce (2003) and then Road Show in 2008. In its earlier life as Bounce, the show played The Kennedy Center for several weeks in the fall of 2003. The Road Show production at Signature is the 26th production of a Sondheim musical at Signature.
It is a swiftly unfolding musical affair centered on two wily, constantly re-inventing themselves brothers. Each in their own way and own time, are out to live the American dream of early 20thcentury America when America was a country full of limitless optimism. One brother is clearly ambitious and brash to a fault, the other a more subdued presence, yet no less a man on the make. The characters are actually fictionalized accounts of two real-life brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner; each on a quest to make a mark, who end up failing on a last venture, creating a land boom and creating a new city in South Florida.
Road Show is fast-moving theatrical trip with a score of 18 winning numbers delivered over 80 uninterrupted minutes. The musical journey illuminates the lives of the Mizner brothers as it wanders through America between the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s to the Florida land boom that ended in with the Depression in 1930’s America. Along the way there are comically quick “visits” to exotic ports of call including Hawaii, Hong Kong, Bombay, and Guatemala. The score and the book highlight scenes of high confidence, gloomy doubt, comic wit, and a scrumptious tune of love and affection.
The more subdued of the brothers, Addison, is an artistically-minded architect who is at first a rather discreet striver without much guile. The other brother, Wilson, is a born hustler; a colorfully brazen con artist. The two Mizner brothers are played by Broadway veterans Josh Lamon (Addison Mizner) and Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner). The actors play two devoted brothers over 30 years depicted on stage.
Addison Mizner is portrayed by a thick-set Josh Lamon, who received a 2011 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Non-Resident Production for his work in the touring company production of Hair at The Kennedy Center. As Addison, Lamon effortlessly gives off the striking conflicting emotions of frustration, pain, resentment, joy and love. He is a man who thinks himself not good enough and stands with shoulders slumped. His performance is a a most effecting one; unsure that he is worthy and lovable. Beyond his layered acting chops, his singing is polished and on the mark.
As the charmer of the two brothers, Wilson, Noah Racey gives off the incandescent energy of a man who knows he is a looker who can smile his way into and out of anything. He is rarely at a loss for words; always ready to make a quick exit if the situation warrants. Then again, one of his well-delivered lines is: “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down.” Racey sings with a fearless devil-may-care suave posture.
Other key cast members include the protean Sherri L. Edelen as Mama Mizner, the gruff paternal presence of Dan Manning as Papa Mizner, and Matthew Schleigh as Hollis Bessemer, the young business partner and then lover of Addison.
An enjoyable ensemble of characters are played by Erin Driscoll, Stefan Alexander Kempski, Jason J. Labrador, Jake Mahler, Angela Miller, and Bobby Smith, sing, dance, and cavort their way through several characters each. They are a mix of the flamboyant, the mild; the rich and snooty or the poor and misbegotten, always in the moment.
As the audience takes their seats in the MAX, they are greeted with preshow piano music delivered by a bowler-hatted Jacob Kidder. He is playing toe tapping expressively buoyant ragtime music as if he is in a music hall. The atmosphere changes quickly as the show begins its dive into the world of the wheeler-dealer Mizners. Brother Addison has just passed away. Those who knew him during life surround his death bed singing “What a Waste” – a number about Addison blowing his creative gifts. Then it is quickly backward in time to another deathbed, that of the Mizner brother’s father. He charges his sons with the task of shaping 20th century America. (“It’s In Your Hands Now”).
A musical number that makes a mark and reprised several times is sung by Wilson – “The Game.” He sings how life should be led in his humble opinion: “The only thing that matters is the game.”
Other numbers that have resonance include a psychological stunner sung by Edelen as Mama Mizner on her deathbed – called “Isn’t He Something” – in which places a glowing spotlight on her favorite, though wayward, son, Wilson, all while the Addison who has devotedly cared for her in Wilson’s absence slowly falls into the ruin of stunned devastation.
A gorgeous ballad, “The Best Thing that Ever Has Happened,” is sung as a love duet between Addison and lover Bessemer. There are also fun songs sung by the full company including “Baco Raton” – a number that swirls around the suckers who have fallen prey to the Mizner brothers’ land scam.
The production features musical direction by Jon Kalbfleisch, and scenic design by Scott Davis – who has staged Road Show with the audience on three sides. Incandescent footlights frame the edges of the set with latticed woodworks above the stage given off a sense of an old music hall. There is a small second level used to situate larger ensemble scenes or as a slightly hidden area for other musicians to appear and play instruments like guitars and violins. Lighting by Joel Shier is effective in giving off a sense of mood while Ivania Stack’s costumes provide the necessary sway of passing time.
Road Show is a “lost” Sondheim work that beyond the DC area’s cognoscenti has likely been unseen by most audiences. And this alone is reason enough to take it in. Its long gestation and bumpy road to reach Signature is another excellent reason to take yourself to Arlington.
And let’s be honest – nobody does Sondheim better than Signature Theatre! So run and buy tickets!
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.