by Mike Hoban
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by John Weidman; Co-Directed by Spiro Veloudos and Ilyse Robbins; Music Direction by Jonathan Goldberg; Choreography by Ilyse Robbins; Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco; Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski; Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill; Costume Design by Amanda Mujica. Presented by The Lyric stage Company of Boston, 40 Clarendon St., Boston through February 11
Watching Steven Sondheim’s Roadshow is a lot like listening to Magical Mystery Tour or Yellow Submarine by the Beatles. You know it’s not in the same league as say, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Abbey Road, but there’s certainly enough good material there to warrant a listen. Such is the case with Roadshow, now being presented by the Lyric Stage Company. It’s no Into the Woods or A Little Night Music, but much like the lesser Beatles works, there are the flashes of brilliance that one would expect from any Sondheim musical.
Roadshow has actually gone through a number of iterations (and quite frankly, could still use a little work). The show had previously been titled Bounce, Wise Guys and Gold! before its premiere in its current form in 2008, and has not been produced much since. But it’s still worth seeing this uneven but ultimately satisfying production, especially if you’re a Sondheim fan.
Roadshow tells the story of the real-life Mizner brothers, Addison (Neil A. Casey) and Wilson (Tony Castellanos), a pair of early 20th century fortune seekers who meet with varying degrees of success during the course of their mostly ill-spent lives. The boys are urged by their dying father to go out and help shape the world (“It’s In Your Hands”, nicely sung by Sean McGuirk as the Dad), but mostly they seem interested in finding ways to line their pockets.
Their first adventure takes them to the Klondike during the Alaskan Gold Rush, where after suffering a few months of hardship, they strike gold. But more important to the plot, it’s where we get our first glimpse of Wilson’s true character (“The Game”) as he bets their first big gold nugget – as well as the deed to their claim – on one hand of poker in a saloon. We all breathe a sigh of relief when he wins, but the horrified Addison takes his share of the winnings and heads home while Wilson buys the saloon and makes his first foray into “show business”. Following his return, Addison goes on a two-year global investment spree that fails miserably, and quite frankly, is pretty uninteresting from both a narrative and musical standpoint.
Defeated, he returns home and embarks on a new career as an architect, just as a financially drained Wilson re-appears at Mom’s doorstep. The scheming Wilson soon marries Addison’s freshly-widowed multimillionaire client, and backs a series of failed adventures with her money. His every move is detailed by the newspapers, as he becomes a 1910 male version of the Kardashians. Wilson gets involved in the criminal end of prizefighting and horseracing, and even writes a couple of Broadway flops, all of which causes his new wife to (smartly) kick him to the curb. While that may sound like fertile ground for plot development and clever musical numbers, it feels fairly underdeveloped by Sondheim and Weidman (who also wrote the book for Sondheim’s Assassins and Pacific Overtures) despite some amusing moments (“That was a Year”).
But just as you begin to start checking your watch, Roadshow takes on a new life, beginning with “Isn’t He Something!” an ode to Wilson sung by Mama Mizner (done beautifully by Vanessa Schukis) right before she dies. The story (and music) really kicks into a higher gear when Addison boards a train to Florida, and meets his rich-boy lover Hollis (Patrick Varner, who never fails to impress), and the tepid pace of the first half of the show fades from memory.
There aren’t any real showstoppers in this production, but there are a handful of songs that remind us why Sondheim is no ordinary talent, particularly “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me”, an impressive duet between Addison and his new love. And the vocal work by the ensemble (Jordan Clark, Shannon Lee Jones, Will McGarrahan, Robin Long, David Makransky, and Brandon Milardo) is a huge plus, including some gorgeous harmonies on the radio jingles that Wilson composes to try and hype the City of Boca Raton, where the brothers are running a real estate scam. Castellanos also does his best work in the radio numbers, as his alcoholic and coke sniffing ways turn him into a kind demented evangelist, hawking Boca Raton as the new Shangri-La. The story still feels a little murky right until the end, but you’re so caught up in the musical numbers that it it really doesn’t matter.
Roadshow may not be Sondheim’s best, but even less-than-brilliant Sondheim is still pretty enjoyable. For more info and tickets, go to: www.lyricstage.com