fri 14/08/2020

Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory | reviews, news & interviews

Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory

Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory

Flawed but fascinating, Stephen Sondheim's latest continues its ongoing journey

That Road Show remains a work-in-progress whether or not compared with those two proven masterworks was clear when I caught it Off Broadway two and a half years ago, and the piece remains so in its European premiere. The result will be essential viewing for Sondheim completists keen to clock yet another of this composer-lyricist's takes on the curdling of the American dream, and it's entirely possible that any flaws are in some strange way inseparable from its conception, as if too ordered a realisation of the subject matter would be at odds with its fidgety, seize-the-day ethos drawing us toward the pot of gold at the end of the illusory rainbow. Not for nothing is "the legendary Oz" invoked in passing: life, Road Show tells us, is an elaborate con, but that doesn't keep us from hurtling along until such point as we're told that the "show's over" and our most extravagant hopes and fancies fade to black.

For more than a half-century, Sondheim has wanted to tell the story of the Mizner brothers, two real-life Americans who separately and together thirsted for success, coming in and out of one another's orbit in accordance with a morality tale that locates in our desperation for money the seeds of doom. Addison (Michael Jibson) was an architectural maverick hell-bent on imagining an entirely new look for America only to flame out in both his personal and professional lives; he was also gay, a fact that allows Sondheim to write what for him is an unusual power duet for two men: "The Best Thing That Ever has Happened". (There's "Agony" for the princes in Into the Woods, but that number is competitively comic, not same-sex romantic.)

Wilson, Addison's brother (Bedella), was a womaniser who took up for a time with Addison's (female) first client, his youthful enthusiasms giving way to fist-pounding demagoguery and apparently copious supplies of cocaine. He also gambled and wrote, the latter not all that well, which is where he and Sondheim part company, however great a hold these two emblems of a uniquely questing American spirit exert over their creator.

roadshow2The siblings' lives are broadly sketched across 95 minutes, no interval, taking us on a circular journey that includes various deaths and failed relationships and grandiose-seeming schemes that literally encompass the globe. The men's father (Glyn Kerslake) hovers on the periphery like some admonitory figure from beyond the grave, while their mum (Gillian Bevan) lives with Addison but pays plaintive tribute in song to Wilson. "Doesn't he sparkle?" she asks, the question pinpointing one of the problems of a piece that tends to announce people's abiding characteristics rather than dramatising them in any meaningful way.

It doesn't help that Bedella's dark-eyed Wilson is notably short on the necessary sizzle, and one could in the same vein wonder what it is that makes Jibson's pale, ever-pulsating Addison so attractive to the linen-suited familial malcontent, Hollis (Jon Robyns, pictured above with Jibson), whom he meets on a Florida-bound train and later beds. Looking like a younger version of Alexander Gemignani, who originated the role in New York, Jibson to his immense credit brings a commendable fervour, some firm pipes, and a flawless American accent, all of which help to sideline the observation that he and Bedella don't look for a moment as if they might be related.

Robyns's angelically attired lover aside, the supporting cast generally bustle this way and that across director John Doyle's own traverse set, the pile-up of props split between opposite ends of a bisected space: the widening gulf between the brothers literalised by a scenic configuration that often positions them at either extreme of the action. Visibly amplified, the company is plenty loud for the intimate confines of the Menier, sometimes clamorously so; one comes to welcome the quieter, more wistful moments of a score that builds to a thunderous finish that might give even Mama Rose pause. (Having said that, I wonder whether the matriarch in Gypsy would be sensitive to rhymes like "wistful" and "fistful" that announce themselves as quintessential Sondheim.)

roadshow3The music and lyrics, as expected, are Road Show's defining attraction, and so what if one notes direct references to Assassins here (in the writing for the father, especially) or a quote or two from Merrily we Roll Along there? You've rarely heard a jauntier paean to two existences jointly depleted than in the opening number, "Waste", while Hollis's solo rumination, "Talent", tilts toward the Sondheimian self-reckoning that makes Sunday in the Park soar. Throughout it all, hundred dollar bills are tossed time and again into the air, many of the greenbacks landing in the audience's lap (pictured above, as the two leads wallow in cash). Lucre is both the incentivising force of the culture on view and its Achilles heel, a double-pronged reality that did in the songwriting team in Merrily and here divides the brothers whom we see early on huddling together for comfort.

Loneliness and shame get close to the last word, which will come as no surprise to devotees of the darker pathways Sondheim has travelled across his career. And if Road Show tells more than it shows, maybe that, too, is as it must be, coming from a creator for whom the vaudevillian impulse - writ large early on in his score for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum - coexists with a view of humankind veering not far from the abyss. To that extent, Road Show is best thought of as a distillation of time-honoured Sondheim themes that his audience will enter the theatre humming before any of Jonathan Tunick's elegant orchestrations are heard. (For London, there are eight musicians, down from 13 at the Public Theatre in New York.)

What next for this musical's 81-year-old creator? That's difficult to answer, though the closing lines of Road Show provide a possible clue. Let's just say that Sondheim lets the curtain fall, metaphorically speaking, on the Mizners, even as this musical's finish implies that the final act, in art as in life, is yet to come.

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