A valuable service of providing a fresh look at Stephen Sondheim’s “Road Show” has been contributed by Encores! in its Off-Center series, which included an impressive concert version (July 24-27) of the work, which has undergone various revisions. In reviewing a previous staging of the musical at the Public Theater (see Search) I wrote: “Sondheim’s music and lyrics require more than one sit-through.” This is especially true with “Road Show,” and I was happy to get this new opportunity, particularly when the Encores! offering is so well-performed.
This time the staging is built around a radio broadcast, which serves to provide unity to the story of two very different real-life brothers who seek their fortunes in the first part of the 20th century. The radio idea pretty much falls by the wayside as the musical progresses, but the framework has provided the set-up.
Sondheim’s approach combines a very personal familial saga with his cynical take on ambition under capitalism that tempts dishonesty in a boom or bust economy thrust on society. The style is intimate and somewhat vaudevillian, with Sondheim’s clever lyrics and music advancing the plot in the book by John Weidman.
The brothers are superbly performed by Brandon Uranowitz and Raúl Esparza. Uranowitz plays Addison Mizner, the brother who attempts to ethically search for success, while Esparza brashly portrays Wilson Mizner, who casts ethics to the side in his quest and is willing to take chances in chasing the almighty dollar as a goal in itself, referred to as “the game.” The musical chronicles the clash of the brothers with their respective values, as well as emphasizing an underlying bond between them.
In Sondheim’s vision, both brothers start out to seek their fortune in the Alaskan gold rush, and Esparza as Wilson has some great comic touches with language imitations and funny body movements in satirizing his brother’s ventures in Hawaii, India and China. Eventually Addison, who realizes architecture is his calling, begins to fulfill that ambition by becoming involved in the Florida land boom and building houses in Palm Beach. Wilson, who becomes a desperate failure, gets in on the action by prodding his brother into shady speculation in Boca Raton with disastrous results.
Early on the musical depicts their father, Papa Mizner, touchingly played by Chuck Cooper, dispensing go-forward advice via a powerful song, “It’s in Your Hands Now.” Mama Mizner is given an outstanding performance by Mary Beth Peil, who excels with her show-stopping solo, “Isn’t He Something!” and we see the parents again in an afterlife, as well as the brothers who talk about their careers and deaths in Sondheim’s nervy closing portion.
A moving aspect of “Road Show” is Addison’s involvement with Hollis Bessemer (excellent Jin Ha), which starts as a business relationship and evolves into a tender gay love affair. A high point in the score is their moving duet, “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” which comes across as a moving, beautiful universal love song apart from the specificity of it being sung in a gay relationship.
There is a section in “Road Show” in which a stretch of dialogue between the brothers begins to become somewhat stiff, but songs and plot advancement soon come to the rescue. Sondheim has provided many superior numbers, such as “Gold!” “The Game” and “Boca Raton.” This new look at his work reveals much about his sophistication in blending music and lyrics to express character, feelings and a view of society. “Road Show” has been underrated and needs to be re-examined for its place in the Sondheim’s collection of work.
As usual, the Encores! orchestra does an exemplary job with the score, although it is smaller in this Off-Center presentation. James Moore is musical director and conductor, with orchestrations by Joathan Tunick. The direction by Will Davis strives to provide fluidity and emphasis where required, and Davis also did the choreography. At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed July 27, 2019.