So So Sondheim

road-showMining for gold is a process that can occupy years of effort only to yield very small returns. This draws an appropriate parallel to the amount of time that Stephen Sondheim has put into the many incarnations of Road Show only to end up with a mediocre musical that bears his name but none of his genius. Just as the characters in this story are trying to hustle a series of cons, these actors and director are trying hard to sell this musical that just isn’t worth buying.

As a criticism of American capitalism, the theme is ripe and brought to the stage with perfect timing; unfortunately the exploration lacks depth and scratches at clichés of the flaws in our national character rather than probing with the vigor that the topic deserves. The dichotomy between loving the charming swindler while trying desperately to hold to high morals is blatantly personified by the Mizner brothers, Wilson and Addison, and later spelled out in an uninspired song sung by the dying mother. Aside from using the birth of Boca Raton to demonstrate how a dream of idealistic intents can be turned into a crude trick for making money, there is not much to this story. On the whole, the book rambles along, aimless and episodic, struggling to get off the ground, making it a perfect companion for this flightless bird of a score.

With the exception of one love song sung between two men, there is little in the score that stands out in a good way. The melodies stolen directly from Assassins worked better in their original piece and the phrase “such a waste” had more meaning in Sweeney Todd. The songs actually original to the piece are a collection of elementary rhymes trying to hold up melodies uncertain of themselves from one note to the next. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with rhyming words like “broke” and “joke,” but it is less than we have come to expect from Sondheim and leaves one wondering if Stephen has lost his thesaurus.

Director John Doyle was given the thankless job of trying to save this already sinking ship, and while he came up with some interesting ideas, it appears that he had too many. The set, Doyle’s design, consists of a wall made up of packing crates, office files, and cabinets, all containing the endless parade of props and set decoration that ultimately clutter the stage, distracting more than supporting the action of the play. Along with progressively littering the stage with paper money, the vomiting set seems designed to emphasize the mess created by the Mizners in their entrepreneurial wake, but leaves one feeling sorry for the production’s stage manager. Aside from the forced thematic green of the Boca Raton scenes, the color scheme is drowned in brown, which only goes to further the overall dullness already described.

It would be hard to fault the actors for the lack of solid material, but they can’t be credited with saving it either. Michael Ceveris offers the strongest performance, playing a manic Wilson, relentlessly moving from one dice game to the next with little time to breath in between. Alexander Gemignani portrays a tottering Addison who matures slowly, commanding as little sympathy in his death at the play’s end as he did during the flashback of that same act at the play’s beginning. Sadly, there is little else worth mentioning.

I refuse to believe that this is the best the master who brought us Sweeney Todd, Company, and Follies has to offer. I wish he would surround himself with people who demand what he is capable of rather than supporting whatever he happens to make. - C. Jefferson Thom

cj_thom

Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.

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