Stephen Sondheim, now 89 years old, first began writing a musical about the real-life eccentric and significant Mizner Brothers when he was 23 years old; paused in his efforts when he learned that Irving Berlin was already writing one; then, when Berlin abandoned the project, took it up again 40 years later. The musical that Sondheim and librettist John Weidman eventually came up with, now called “Road Show,” is getting a thoroughly enjoyable production through Saturday night with a sublime cast as part of the Encores Off Center summer concert series.
The rocky road to “Road Show” is nearly as fascinating as the story told in “Road Show” – about Addison Mizner, architect and closeted homosexual who created the city of Boca Raton, and his older brother Wilson Mizner, con artist, womanizer, drunk, jack of many trades including celebrated Broadway playwright (!) and screenwriter. Together the Mizner brothers were largely responsible for the Florida real estate boom and bust of the 1920s.
Sondheim and Weidman came up with the completed musical in 1998, but this was just the first of four versions over the next decade, each with its own title (“Wise Guys,” “Gold,” “Bounce.”). The version at City Center is largely the darker one that was first presented Off-Broadway as “Road Show” at the Public Theater in 2008, with one major change, which fits in with the format of Encores: Director and choreographer Will Davis frames “Road Show” as a radio drama, complete with one of those red lights that says “On The Air,” old-fashioned microphones, and scripts always in hand. (The scripts in hand was one of the trademark features of the Encores series long ago, now largely abandoned.) Still, Davis features props and visual jokes along the way, as we follow the extraordinary (and often true) picaresque adventures of these two entrepreneurial Americans. These start when their mother (Mary Beth Peil) urges both Addison (Brandon Uranowitz) and Wilson (Raúl Esparza) to go prospecting for gold in Alaska. Addison is successful at finding a gold mine. Wilson, a compulsive gambler, bets their claim at a poker game – and wins, but trades it in for a saloon. This sets up the dynamic between the two, the love-hate relationship. It’s enough to make Addison split, and go on the road – to Hawaii, India, Hong Kong, Guatemala…postcards and props from each to illustrate the song – eventually winding up as architect in Florida, thanks to a rich scion he falls in love with and exploits, Hollis (Jin Ha, who made his impressive Broadway debut in M. Butterfly and is spectacular here.)
Wilson has his own adventures, with more failed ventures than successes, and also winds up in Florida. All the while their long-deceased father (a wonderfully deep-voice Chuck Cooper) periodically admonishes them, and lectures them on America as a land of opportunity for their generation; they treat it like a land for opportunism.
Does “Road Show” now deserve a place in the canon of American musical theater? That’s the question that surely attends any production of the show, for many reasons – because of its initial and continued negative-to-mixed critical reception; because it’s the last original musical Sondheim has produced, and it’s never been on Broadway; and just because this is Sondheim we’re talking about.
I’ll take a cue from the Supreme Court and sidestep this sweeping question, rendering a narrow judgment instead. I want to avoid comparisons to the landmark Sondheim musicals that have more lucid and resonant narratives and more memorable tunes. So I’ll just say: The “Road Show” at City Center is a delightful production in every way. There are so many small delectable moments, such as seeing Esparza doing a consummate showman’s soft shoe in the background. The clever, vaudevillian aura of much of the score, enhanced as usual by Jonathan Tunick’s lush and lively orchestrations, is punctuated by several gorgeous songs. In “Isn’t He Something,” Mama seems to be complaining to Addison about her other son — about how Wilson never writes, and says things she would never dare to say – but it all turns out to be in admiration:
Carelessness and being free of care, aren’t they the same?
Some men live to be good,
Some men live to be bad,
Some men live just to sparkle. and doesn’t he sparkle?
See how he glides!
Isn’t he something!
In “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” Addison and Hollis sing a love duet:
They say we all find love
I never bought it.
I never thought it
would happen to me.
Who could foresee?
You are the goddamnedest thing that has happened to me, ever.
“Road Show” is not the best thing that ever I have seen, but, as presented by Encores Off Center, see how it sparkles.
Music & lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: John Weidman
Director-choreographer: Will Davis
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunic
Set designer: Donyale Werle
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Cast: Chuck Cooper, Raúl Esparza, Jin Ha, Mary Beth Peil, Brandon Uranowitz, Brandon Contreras, Rheaume Crenwhaw, Daniel J. Edwards, Marina Kondo, Jay Lusteck, Liz McCartney, Matt Moisey, Shereen Pimentel, Sharone Sayegh, Vishal Vaidya