Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Road Show

Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I've always said - jokingly, I assure you - that I like to see my money up on stage. But the production of Stephen Sondheim's Road Show, which opened last night at New York City's Public Theater, takes things to a whole new level.

Over the course of 90 minutes, Wilson Mizner, played by a delightfully brash Michael Cerveris, and his more low-key brother, Addison, portrayed by Alexander Gemignani, seek their fortunes in the late 19th and early 20th century United States, and around the world. The pair walk a fine line between entrepreneur and con artist as they make and lose more money than you could possibly imagine.

No, I take that back. It's actually quite easy to imagine because money - great wads of it - is everywhere in this musical. Tossed in the air with abandon, it lands in the audience or is strewn about on stage, where it rests for the remainder of the show, as if to punctuate what this is all about.

I like drama that explores the dark underbelly of American life, and the music in Road Show reminds me a bit of Sondheim's score for Assassins. If Assassins is a meditation on our propensity for violence and our desire for fame, then Road Show is about other strains in the American character - our ability to create new identities for ourselves, our desire to strike it rich and our willingness to do anything for a buck.

The real-life Mizner brothers were born in California in the 1870s and died within weeks of each other in 1933. This is my first experience with the musical about their lives, which has had various incarnations over the past decade since its beginnings as Bounce. Apparently the current version sheds some characters, drops some songs and trims the running time. But I think the essence of the story remains.

John Weidman's book opens with their death and works backward - as their dying Papa, played by William Parry urges the brothers to go out and find their own road in life. That road, of course, is supposed to lead to the American Dream of financial success.

And Road Show, under John Doyle's snappy direction, charts every twist and turn along the way - prospecting for gold in Alaska, a fireworks factory in Hong Kong, a questionable real estate venture in Florida.

If at first they fail, and they seem to fail a lot, the Mizners simply remake themselves into something else. Along the way they're partners, they quarrel and in the end, they're inseparable. If they sometimes skirt the edge of the law, their inventiveness and daring are the same qualities that built this country.

This was my first trip to the Public and I was surprised and thrilled to find that the Newman Theater is a very intimate space - about 300 seats. Doyle's scenic design is a jumble of old wooden boxes and filing cabinets that the cast sits on - and Cerveris and Gemignani do quite a bit of jumping around on during the show.

Cerveris is terrific as Wilson Mizner, the more amoral of the brothers. He's a cad and a raconteur and a rogue. I especially loved the number that charts his successes and failures in New York City, where he's toasted as the "king of Broadway." He marries a rich widow, tries his hand at playwriting and as a boxing promoter, and probably a few other things that I've forgotten. (I wish I knew the name of the song, but there was no song list in my Playbill.) All the while he pretty much ignores his brother and poor Mama, played sweetly by Alma Cuervo, who faithfully follows his comings and goings in the society pages.

While it's a less showy role, Addison is still a pretty fascinating figure and Gemignani does a great job portraying his inner conflict. At times, he goes along with his brother's schemes and at other times, he's repulsed by them. He genuinely wants to settle down to work as an architect, building grand houses for the very rich. There's a great scene showing how each matron wants her home to be flashier and bigger than her neighbor's.

Traveling to Florida by train, Addison befriends Hollis Bessemer, played with innocence and enthusiasm by Claybourne Elder. Bessemer, whose father has disowned him for dropping out of the family business, dreams of starting a colony for artists. He and Addison become partners and lovers. They have a beautiful, stirring duet: "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened."

Still, I couldn't quite figure out whether Addison was sincere or whether he was using Bessemer for his entre to Florida's rich and powerful. I didn't sense a great deal of chemistry between them. So I wondered whether they really were the great loves of each other's lives or whether this simply was another Mizner con. I hope not, because it's such a gorgeous song.

While Road Show has some dark moments, there's a great deal of wit and humor, with some perceptive things to say about the American character and about human nature in general. The brothers' final scheme - tempting people to buy land in the new community of Boca Raton, Fla., with the promise of an enormous return on their investment - has echoes of today's subprime mortgage crisis.

When Wilson airs a radio pitch for the project, the sound design by Dan Moses Schreier makes his voice reverberate throughout the tiny auditorium. It's a deal that's too good to be true, Sondheim is telling us, but human nature being what it is, we fall for it anyway.

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