By Brian Scott Lipton
Having bounced around, under various titles and incarnations, for over 15 years, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Road Show has now landed for a too-brief run at New York City Center (as part of the Encores! Off-Center Series) in a production that demands any serious musical-theater lover’s attention. Splendidly acted and sung, notably by Raul Esparza and Brandon Uranowitz in the leading roles, Will Davis’ clever, mostly minimalist staging sheds new light on this troubled creation.
Mind you, the light can sometimes be harsh, especially in the show’s early going. Road Show still feels, at times, to be what Sondheim has called a “why” musical. Do we really need another treatise about the futility of the American dream? Here, that’s personified by the somewhat-true, somewhat fictionalized personae of brothers Wilson Mizner (Esparza), a suave, charming wastrel more interested in playing any – almost every — game than actually winning it, and Addison Mizner (Uranowitz), a brilliant architect (once he finds his calling), who ultimately falls prey to his own ambition and Willie’s schemes. (In real life, unlike the show, there were eight Mizner siblings.)
But midway through, Road Show reveals just how well it fits within the Sondheim canon. The brothers’ relationship, dysfunctional as can be, is just another example of Sondheim’s lifelong exploration of how people simultaneously can and cannot live without each other, be it Buddy and Sally, Charlotte and Carl-Magnus or Franklin and Charlie. Their pairing is not incestuous, per se — Wilson briefly marries a rich widow (a colorful Liz McCartney) and Addison seemingly gives his heart to “poor little rich kid” Hollis Bessemer (an affecting Jin Ha) — but it’s their love story that is the real engine propelling the journey.
And given that the main characters don’t evolve much, Road Show requires tour guides of the highest order. Esparza, in a triumphant return to musicals (and Sondheim musicals, in particular) delivers an almost-vaudevillian turn as Wilson, emphasizing Wilson’s natural showmanship at every turn. He handles Sondheim’s ultra-intricate lyrics and melodies with ease and finesse and almost literally commands your attention whenever he’s onstage.
Fortunately for this production, he’s more than matched by Uranowitz. Slight in stature (making him physically the opposite of the real-life Addison, who was built more like a football player), Uranowitz brings not just his innate musicality to the role, but his sardonic sense of humor and genuine decency, both of which have become trademarks of his consistently excellent stage work.
In fact, it’s hard to think of a more striking scene anywhere than the one in which a defeated Wilson finally deigns to pay a visit on Addison and his mother (the superb Mary Beth Peil, stopping the show with score’s standout tune “Isn’t He Something?”), unaware that she has just died. Watching Uranowitz’s Addison greet his prodigal sibling with cold contempt, even in the midst of heartbreaking grief, is a true lesson in great acting.
Road Show, much like Sondheim’s Passion, also proves challenging for audiences — not just because it’s hard to like Wilson, but because it focuses so squarely on its main characters. The brother’s father (valiantly sung by an underused Chuck Cooper) is killed off within the first few minutes, and after Mama dies, there’s nobody onstage but the brothers to really focus on. (Hollis is always a bit of cipher). Davis’ ten-person ensemble does excellent work, to be sure, but they never fully emerge from the background.
And even more so than Passion, Road Show doesn’t really have any songs that work outside the context of the show (save for Hollis and Addison’s sweet if bland love duet, “The Best Thing That Ever Happened”), reminding us of the decades-old trope (long disproved) that Sondheim can’t write “hummable” tunes.
Still and all, I think Davis’ production may be the best thing that will ever happen to Road Show. So grab a ticket if you can to the remaining performances!
Photos: Joan Marcus
Road Show continues at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street) through Saturday, June 27. Visit www.nycitycenter.org for tickets