Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed and Designed by John Doyle
Starring Michael Ceveris and Alexander Gemignani
Papp-Public/Newman - 425 Lafayette Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

You’ve doubtless by now read a lot of opinions about Road Show. Well, here’s another, one whose overall view at least you probably haven’t read. And it’s this:

                 Everybody’s right.

                As realized in its—according to its authors—definitive form, Road Show, formerly Bounce, formerly Wise Guys, formerly (but never publicly) Gold! is something of a Rorschach test for the viewer. John Simon was right to say it was better and hotter in Chicago, Linda Winer was right to say it’s a “dear” little show, Brantley is right to say it doesn’t know how to properly exploit the riches of its true-life subject matter, and everybody who says it’s terrific, they’re right too.

                  Now, how is this possible. How is all this possible, not merely as a manifestation of “there’s no accounting for taste” but as the rationale for there being no clear, accurate majority consensus?

                  Well, it has to do with a phrase that the show’s composer-lyricist, and one of the theatre’s international treasures, Stephen Sondheim, has been throwing about both publicly and in private: that the new iteration, directed by John Doyle, at the Public Theatre, is at long last “the show we intended.” In previous incarnations, directors Sam Mendes and later Harold Prince had their hands in (and the authors might also say “on”) this historical triptych—a survey of the life of the Mizner brothers, peripatetic entrepreneurs of the early 20th century—and as those few of you out there reading this who’ve ever authored a musical in production do know, and the rest of you might know, and if not should know: the director of a musical finding its way isn’t just putting the thing on its feet, but acting as interpreter and frequently dramaturg as welland in the discovery process, the change in sensibility between one director and another can be stark enough to fully change the character and texture of the piece.

                  And while John Doyle has certainly stamped Road Show with his directorial and design imprimatur (an abstract, all-purpose set of shelves, cubby holes and other storage boxes—a conspicuous one being a coffin—forms the landscape and defines the playing space), he seems also to have put himself in the role of filterer; to have asked the authors, perhaps in a way they feel nobody had before, “Well, what do you intend?” and to help them distill, distill, distill so that both story and thematic essence are unequivocally clear.

                  What’s causing the controversy of opinion is this: It’s clear to a fault.

                  It’s so distilled that the production comes off as emotionally neutral. There’s no real performance heat, not in the sense that the audience feels on the primal, visceral level that most successful musicals manage to tap into. So if the material engages you, you bring your own heat to it. And if it doesn’t, you stay removed.

                  Not merely the story (book by John Weidman) has been so distilled, but also Sondheim’s score. While the version called Bounce broke no new ground for the maestro, anyone who saw, or heard that version—via attendance, cast album or bootleg recording (my exposure was via the latter two)—would at least have acknowledged that there was a vigorous playfulness at work. Yet at the Public, some of the same music—by which I mean the same melodies, same motifs, same arrangements (if represented in reduced orchestration [dare I say likewise distilled for a smaller ensemble?] by the inestimable Jonathan Tunick, who is in finer fettle here than he’s been in many a year)—in being reworked, re-shaped, re-assigned, re-lyricized toward that “ultimate” clarity…feels slighter.

                  The opening tune, once titled “Bounce,” has been transmogrified into one called “Waste” about the sad profligacy of pursuing an empty get-rich-quick American dream. If the musical is now the Hope and Crosby-style “road movie” the authors wanted, it’s a road movie by way of Brecht.

                  The performances too are more instructive and illustrative than full-blooded, the characters likewise being portrayed as essences, so we both understand them more as symbols and engage with them less as people. In Bounce, Howard McGillin’s Willie was a smooth playboy with the charm of a classic rogue, and Richard Kind’s Addison was a the well-meaning bumbler whose sincerity allowed us to root for the dream and see the good side of his brother with him. In Road Show, Michael Cerveris’s Willie seems driven by a cool pathology toward a constant state of almost sociopathic dissolution; and Alexander Gemignani’s Addison, though still a nicer guy, has a seems haunted by a fatalistic certainty that he’ll never measure up, which adds (ironic verb) a hollowness to the center of his sweetness.

                  Is the subtext being brought too close to the surface?

                  And as a result, are the actors playing the end of the show (in terms of psychological states) from the beginning?

                  Could it be we’re being “told” too much and not allowed to draw our own conclusions?

                  I ask these questions rather than offer concerete observations because, again, the Rorschach test.  The questions only reflect the  musings inspired by mine.

                  The only absolute opinion I’ll pass on as a worthwhile barometer is this: I don’t actually think this is the show the authors intended. I think it’s the iteration of dramatic themes they intended. I think it’s the clearest possible blueprint for the message they wish to impart (and indeed, except for the Mizners and their parents, all the cast are clothed in costumes that feature ground plan, blueprint-style designs, albeit as black lines against a beige background).

                  I think the show they intend is this version of the words and music, but with more heat. I just don’t think they know it yet, and that’s entirely natural; they’re flush with the victory, the catharsis, of getting this edition onstage. Of freezing the material.

                  But that said and that done, I think they’re one more director away. Not dramaturg-director this time, but a “simple” re-interpreter. Someone who, without fudging the meaning or the balance, will “sloppy it up” a bit and get all up in its face. More importantly get it all up into ours.

                  But that gold, for these wise guys, is a few more bounces down the road…

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