It’s not exactly a secret that Road Show isn’t a very good musical.
The Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical has undergone reinvention after reinvention—and title change after title change—from its 1999 premiere as Wise Guys to its 2003 revision called Bounce. Road Show, in its final form (which runs at the Lyric Stage through Feb 11), premiered Off-Broadway in 2008 to the same kind of negative reviews that it had been met with from the start.
Sam Mendes couldn’t get it right. Hal Prince couldn’t get it right. John Doyle couldn’t get it right. I’m sensing a pattern.
The musical tells the true(ish) story of Addison and Wilson Mizner, two brothers who left nary a stone unturned in their dogged pursuit of fortune and success. (They are played in the Lyric’s production by Neil A. Casey and Tony Castellanos.) From the Yukon to New York City to Boca Raton, there wasn’t much they weren’t willing to try.
Both achieved relative success in their lifetimes, though you wouldn’t know it from Road Show: Addison was a successful architect who left his fingerprints and influence all over Southern Florida, and Wilson had some success as a Hollywood screenwriter and co-owner of the famed Brown Derby.
Road Show also suggests that both brothers lost everything as a result of their botched attempt at turning Boca Raton into the “Venice of the Atlantic,” an endeavor into which they poured all of their resources. While bankruptcy did follow, it didn’t totally ruin them.
Sondheim and Weidman have dreamed up a fictional character, Hollis Bessemer (the always great Patrick Varner), in an effort to dramatize the downfall of the Mizner’s Boca project. Hollis, Road Show purports, was a lover-cum-business partner of Addison’s whom the brothers exploited in order to get their project off the ground. In reality, the brothers put together an association full of investors, which included Irving Berlin and Elizabeth Arden. The true story of the brothers is fascinating enough that it feels like a reckless and baseless decision to pepper it with inventions.
And yet, ironically, the Hollis narrative is virtually the only interesting slice of this musical. It’s not that the writing is particularly clever as much as it is a testament to how talented Varner is, who has over the last several years become one of Boston’s most reliably good performers.
As far as praise goes, that’s about all I’ve got for Road Show, although Cristina Todesco’s wall of furniture set is terrific. Aside from Varner, this production’s greatest asset is the breakneck speed with which the story unfolds and in turn its relatively short running time. At an intermissionless 90 minutes, the audience’s suffering is somewhat mitigated.
Road Show is almost relentlessly boring with virtually no highlights, musical or otherwise; it’s inconceivable that musical theater’s greatest living composer is behind it. That the Mizner brothers led such over-the-top, intriguing lives makes their story ripe for dramatization, and the fact that Road Show is so lifeless is confounding.
Spiro Veloudos (producing artistic director at the Lyric) and Ilyse Robbins serve as co-directors of this production, and while none of the show’s faults can be blamed on them, their production does nothing to compensate for any of its shortcomings. As the two brothers, Neil A. Casey and Tony Castellanos are serviceable, yet neither possess the charm or gift of musical comedy required to carry this clunker on their shoulders.
Part of Veloudos’ artistic mission at the Lyric Stage has been to present all the works of Stephen Sondheim, and so with that mission comes the inevitability of Road Show. It is a worthy mission and I commend him for producing this infamously problematic musical. Yet, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
ROAD SHOW. THROUGH 2.11 AT THE LYRIC STAGE, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM