The complexities of togetherness have always provided the tension in Stephen Sondheim’s work, from his earliest lyrics, in West Side Story, to the time-traveling connection between John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald in Assassins. And while sister problems fueled by mother issues were at the heart of one of his greatest hits, Gypsy, the same dynamic, when applied to two adult brothers, resulted in one of his most troubled efforts, Road Show. The musical, loosely based on the lives of 1920’s era real estate investors Addison and Wilson Mizner, has gone through four title changes and multiple short runs in its 20-year production history. This makes it perfect fodder for the Encores! Off-Center series at New York City Center which is staging a determined, book-in-hand concert performance that reveals a couple small gems amid a vast landscape of problems.
Road Show has a lot of plot. It’s a fairy tale missing its magic, a buddy comedy without many laughs and a family tragedy lacking in pathos. Addison (Brandon Uranowitz, in fine voice) is a devoted son, a hard worker with a sense of wanderlust and a budding architectural genius. Wilson (Raúl Esparza, often charming, sometimes seemingly distracted) is a huckster with a taste for liquor, cocaine, and gambling who burns through money for the thrill of it.
After an opening sequence that turns us against the men before we have a chance to appreciate them, we find the two brothers following the advice of their dying papa (a sincere Chuck Cooper) to go forth and seek riches and the plea of their broke mama (Mary Beth Peil, being perfectly passive aggressive) to do the same. Off they go to Alaska where there is gold in them thar hills. Addison works their claim until finally hitting it rich even as Wilson tries his best to blow through it all at the poker table.
Disillusioned, Addison grabs his share of the cash and travels the world, gathering artistic inspiration, self-respect and a cache of chachkies as he goes, in a strange and meandering song made of fine Sondheim-ian patter, “A Ming tureen made of Opuline and a ten-foot scroll and a lacquered screen.” He lands in New York and reunites with Wilson and their mother just in time for Mama to sing the night’s best number, “Isn’t He Something.” Here, Ms. Peil beautifully renders the misguided affection for the wrong son, “Skates along through life without a care or a shred of pride,/But look at him glide!”
In a final, wild pivot, the brothers go to Florida. Addison falls in love with Hollis (Jin Ha), who is the grandson of the inventor of the blast furnace, then builds palatial homes in Palm Beach instead of creating the “city of artists” that Hollis desires. Driven on by Wilson, Addison goes on to turn Boca Raton into an over-inflated resort development leading only to ruin and a ridiculously long ode to the city in a spot that cries out for a cathartic duet between the brothers who will soon enough reach their mortal end.
Director Will Davis cleverly stages the production like an old-time radio show, complete with a large “On Air” sign and a lively on-stage 13-piece orchestra. But the ten member chorus has too little to do in this staged reading, adding a physical sense of overcrowding to the book by John Weidman that feels too full of itself already.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"Fans of Mr. Sondheim — who as a songwriter but also as a dramatist has done more to reshape the musical than any other artist — fear that this may be the end of the line. Unless his much-announced adaptation of two Luis Buñuel films re-emerges from its seemingly endless doldrums, Road Show is the last new artistic statement we’re likely to have from the master. And what we can see of it in the torpid semi-staged production that opened at City Center on Wednesday — basically a revival of the version seen at the Public Theater in 2008 — seems only intermittently like his work."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"It would be a pleasure to report that this latest incarnation has magically solved the troubled musical's problems. But it's more accurate to say that the Encores production lives up to its mandate by providing a fresh look at a show that deserves to be seen despite its significant flaws. The third collaboration between Sondheim and Weidman after Pacific Overtures and Assassins, Road Show is far from either man's best work, but it definitely has its interesting aspects."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter