Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman have cooked up a strange and beguiling musical in “Road Show.” “In America, the journey is the destination,” says one of the enterprising early 20th century brothers whose paths are unconventionally mapped here. That reflection captures not only a major theme of the show but also its shape, with a starting and finishing point that remain hazy compared to the steadily more seductive adventures that bump along between them on fortune’s roller coaster. Is it a major new Sondheim work? No. But it’s far from the failure its tortuous path to New York might suggest.
The first wholly new work from America’s preeminent contemporary musical theater composer since “Passion” in 1994, the show redefines the term “long gestating.” Sondheim first had the idea in 1952 after reading Alva Johnston’s biography “The Legendary Mizners” to develop a musical based on the colorful lives of Addison and Wilson Mizner, born into a well-heeled California family in the 1870s. But the project lay dormant for years until the composer teamed with Weidman, his collaborator on “Assassins” and “Pacific Overtures,” to write the book.
Modeled on the 1940s Bing Crosby-Bob Hope bigscreen road comedies, the first incarnation, “Wise Guys,” was given a 1999 developmental staging at New York Theater Workshop, directed by Sam Mendes, with Victor Garber and Nathan Lane as the ill-sorted siblings. Sondheim then turned to vet collaborator Harold Prince to direct the show — briefly retitled “Gold!” and then “Bounce” — at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 2003 and, later that year, at the Kennedy Center in D.C. But tepid reviews dampened Broadway plans.
After considerable reworking and another new title, “Road Show” arrives in New York streamlined by almost an hour and elegantly mounted by John Doyle, whose recent revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” make him the go-to guy for pared-down Sondheim. Expectations are inevitably inflated for the show, but whether or not this production turns out to be its definitive version, the rocky history feels oddly appropriate for a story about two restless masters of reinvention.
This is an intimate, almost whimsical musical that never strives for the emotional heights of, say, “Sunday in the Park With George” or the grand theatrical flourishes of “Sweeney Todd.” In the Sondheim canon, it’s closer to the esoterica of his previous Weidman collaborations, in particular “Assassins,” which shares a skeptical view of American identity.
The thematic overlap with that darker, richer show and others like “Follies” is considerable: The cynical hard sell and ultimate con of the American Dream; the hollow reality behind much-vaunted notions of liberty, justice, opportunity and prosperity. And there are glimmers of “Sunday” in the conflict between artistic vision and moneymaking entrepreneurial showmanship.
The musical is somewhat unsatisfyingly framed from beyond the grave, with often-at-odds Addison (Alexander Gemignani) and Wilson (Michael Cerveris) meeting again in the afterlife while their squandered talents, failed schemes and cheating ways are reflected upon in the opening number, “Waste.”
Doyle’s signature style is a high-performance presentational mode in which the actors play directly to the audience, frequently breaking into processional movement and ritualized gestures (wads of cash are tossed about the same way buckets of blood were poured in “Sweeney”). The director’s approach might be risking overuse, but it works well in this elaborate vaudeville. The ensemble remains onstage throughout, observing and providing commentary on the brothers’ picaresque adventures, in addition to playing multiple roles.
On his death bed, their father (William Parry) sings “It’s in Your Hands Now,” pointing them to the limitless opportunities of the new century, planting the seeds of their wanderlust and urging them to find their own roads. That quest sends them prospecting for gold in the Yukon, where Addison’s honest work ethic soon clashes with Wilson’s gambling fever.
Their contradictory personalities are established, as is the suggestion of Addison’s quasi-incestuous feelings for Wilson in “Brotherly Love.” But it’s not until they separate that the show starts to gain traction.
Through dexterous use of props, the brothers’ individual and shared experiences spill forth from the mountain of luggage, crates and cabinets that make up Doyle’s monochromatic, beige- and brown-toned set. Perhaps inevitably, the narrative feels episodic, and some sections are more vividly shaped than others, but given how many Sondheim shows are primarily about ideas, this one’s amplitude of story is refreshing.
Addison’s abortive business endeavors in Hawaii, India, Hong Kong and Guatemala are related as a droll caper worthy of the Marx Brothers, before the need to house all his accumulated exotic treasures illuminates his path into architecture.
That endeavor pans out nicely when Addison hooks up — in business and bed — with Hollis Bessemer (Claybourne Elder), a misunderstood rich boy who dreams of establishing an artists’ colony. Instead, Addison uses Hollis’ connections to build a series of ostentatious mansions for Florida matrons with more money than taste.
Meanwhile, Wilson has won and lost a saloon, married one of Addison’s dowager clients and siphoned her wealth into boxing, Broadway, horse racing and generally being a gadabout wastrel. When he turns up broke on his brother’s doorstep, he uses Hollis to seduce Addison into an extravagant scheme to build a new city, causing the 1920s real estate boom and bust in Boca Raton.
These eventful lives make vibrant source material for a musical about quintessentially American artistry, enterprise and salesmanship, but nobody could accuse Sondheim and Weidman of taking a safe approach to it. For every empathetic glimpse of the brothers’ resilience and audacity, there’s a bitter observation that their bond has been a curse.
Both Cerveris and Gemignani are seasoned Sondheim performers, and each brings his own slightly sour charm to characters we never quite get to know well enough. Addison is the nobler of the two, relatively speaking, so it’s unsurprising Gemignani conveys the most warmth. The sweetness of his song with Hollis, “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” is especially disarming in the show’s context of ambition and exploitation.
Given their more flamboyant vignettes, the women in the workmanlike ensemble (outfitted by Ann Hould-Ward in period garb etched with architectural drawings) make more impression than the men.
In larger roles, newcomer Elder gives Hollis a touching guilelessness and sincerity, and Alma Cuervo’s watchful intensity is lovely as Mama Mizner. She also gets a memorable, typically double-edged Sondheim song, “Isn’t He Something!,” in which she thrills at the wild life led by neglectful prodigal son Wilson: “If he had the slightest sense of shame/It would be a shame/And isn’t he shameless?”
Less complex than many of his scores, the songs are nonetheless unmistakably Sondheim. Always in the service of storytelling, they are leisurely, mainly low-key numbers given an appealing early 20th century sound by Jonathan Tunick’s stately orchestrations.
“Road Show” could have used more emotional texture and lucidity in papering its themes onto the brothers’ post-mortem, but it’s an alluring odyssey, and the Public Theater deserves credit for finally giving New York audiences the chance to experience it. Imperfect as the show is, nobody who cares about musical theater should miss it.