After a singularly tortured genesis involving workshops, false starts and lawsuits, the new Stephen Sondheim musical finally spluttered onto the stage of Chi's Goodman Theater, in a sad state of dramaturgical chaos. Sondheim's thoroughly splendid, traditional Broadway score deserves far better.

This review was corrected on July.7, 2003.

After a singularly tortured genesis involving workshops, false starts and lawsuits, the new Stephen Sondheim musical finally spluttered onto the stage of Chi’s Goodman Theater, in a sad state of dramaturgical chaos. Sondheim’s thoroughly splendid, traditional Broadway score deserves far better, but if anyone is ever going to pay attention to the jaunty and poignant melodies herein (and they should), the show will have to learn to make the case for minor historical figures Addison and Wilson Mizner as metaphors, something larger than their tawdry, self-loathing selves.

The musical also needs to gain some self-respect: Its presentation here as a campy, over-the-top, Mel Brooks-like vaudeville seems to reflect a destructive insecurity that threatens to blow up the whole project like a Florida real estate bust. Sure, “Bounce” can roll along on the lighter side, but it won’t ever work unless it evokes some empathy from the audience. Instead of the prop gags and cartoon sets that currently populate much of Harold Prince’s stylistically bizarre production, we need to see the Mizners (in real life an architect and a huckster) as evoking the flip sides of American entrepreneurship — the con man and the artist, the phony salesman and the true talent.

It’s a potentially potent theme. And buried deep in Sondheim’s lyrics to songs like “You” are subtle explorations of such ideas. Deeper still in the second act, you get the sense that Prince is beginning to evolve the kind of staging that will emphasize those ideas while still accommodating the style of a traditional musical comedy.

But it’s a long wait, and a hard chore to discern the nuggets of substance amid a plastic and generally witless and predictable world populated by over-the-top aristocrats, guys with “press” cards stuck in their hats, cartoon gold-diggers, soft-shoe numbers set in heaven, cut-out sets and gags involving stiff dead bodies and stiffer writing (one joke trades on the confusion between “We’ll be rich again” with “We’re in Michigan”).

There’s so much chaotic filler in John Weidman’s book that the show fails to establish a key idea: the vital interdependence of the two brothers. In the final number, the terrific “Last Flight,” we’re asked to believe that they’re like Siamese twins — but for the preceding 2½ hours, they’re more like satellites in different orbits.

The casting reflects and precipitates much of that uncertainty. Addison is played by Richard Kind as a well-meaning nebbish, sans any and all self-confidence. Since he’s not a legit singer, Kind plays up the gags, even though he’s actually the straight guy. Conversely, Howard McGillin sings the score straight and well — but he is playing the lovable rogue like a romantic lead. It’s a curious state of affairs.

Michele Pawk, as the woman stuck in this triangle, manages to negotiate the difficult stylistic terrain best of all, but her character needs better integration into the book. There’s also a nice legit turn from Gavin Creel, as a young, gay artist — but he’s in a very different musical from, say, Herndon Lackey’s wacky Papa Mizner early in the show. Prince can’t have it both ways.

Biographies — especially of people whose names are not familiar to the general audience member — are certainly tricky source material. They require a lot of narrative (in this case, a lot of two narratives) and thematic unity can prove elusive. “Bounce” has all kinds of problems in this regard — its two numbers involving great passage of time are messy in the extreme. The brothers spend too much time apart, which may indeed have been the case, but it undermines the show. Their relationship with their mother (the elegant Jane Powell) is confusing and seems to shift from scene to scene. And the idea of beginning and ending with the death of the Mizners feels a bit stale.

The best stuff is the honest stuff. There’s a lovely sequence on a train wherein Addison discovers his sexuality and his dreams. There are sweet romantic ballads like “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” with particularly lush orchestrations from longtime Sondheim ally Jonathan Tunick. The show’s rich in delightfully quirky tunes like “What’s Your Rush?” And the title number, “Bounce,” is a fine foot-tapper in the “Merrily We Roll Along” tradition.

But only in flashes — primarily when they’re singing — do we get the sense that these two gold-rush brothers could stand for much bigger things. For us to care, they need to.

Bounce

Goodman Theater, Chicago, 856 seats, $60 top

Production

A Goodman Theater presentation of a musical in two acts with book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Harold Prince

Creative

Choreography, Michael Arnold. Sets, Eugene Lee; costumes, Miguel Angel Huidor; lighting, Howell Brinkley, sound, Dun Robert Edwards; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; musical direction, David Caddick; production stage manager, Alden Vasquez. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN

Cast

Wilson Mizner - Howard McGillin Addison Mizner - Richard Kind Nellie - Michele Pawk Mama Mizner - Jane Powell Hollis Bessemer - Gavin Creel Papa Mizner - Herndon Lackey
With: Sean Blake, Marilynn Bogetich, Tom Daugherty, Jeff Dumas, Deanna Dunagan, Nicole Grothues, Rick Hilsabeck, Jeff Parker, Harriet Nzinga Plumpp, Jenny Powers, Craig Ramsey, Jacquelyn Ritz, Fred Zimmerman.

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