By Paige Allen
August 27, 2019
Road Show (formerly known as Bounce formerly known as Wise Guys) is one of Stephen Sondheim’s lesser known musicals. Written with John Weidman, the musical joins with the duo’s two other creations, Pacific Overtures and Assassins, to form what some consider a trilogy exploring the flaws of the American dream. As you might guess from its various titles, Road Show has been worked and reworked for decades and has yet to see a Broadway run. It’s fitting that a show about two brothers who can never really get it right may be trapped in the same fate itself. I did not see its Off-Broadway run in 2008, so I’ll abstain from official judgement, although I do love the cast album.
In fact, it was through reading the show and listening to the cast album that I first discovered Road Show and, admittedly, fell in love with it. The brothers at the center of the story, based on the real duo of Addison and Wilson Mizner, stole my heart as did the show’s final bit of dialogue, which for me is some of the most beautiful in the musical theater canon (I won’t spoil it).
I wish more people knew and produced the underappreciated gem, but I understand why it’s not commonly done. The show presents challenges and flaws, and it needs two strong actors at the helm to bring the Mizner brothers to (larger than) life.
When I discovered Road Show was being presented through Encores! Off-Center this summer, I could not wait to see it, if only to finally see a staged production of the musical. I went in with high hopes and the fear that those hopes might be crushed. However, under the direction of Will Davis, Road Show blossomed into a “semi-staged concert” to rival full Broadway productions. This Road Show sparkled.
One of the challenges of Road Show is its ever-changing setting, as the play moves rapidly from place to place. When we finally settle in Florida, much of the plot centers on architecture as Addison builds magnificent houses for rich clients. Although there is an entire song about these clients seeing their homes featuring the repeated phrase “look at it,” it is nearly impossible to present these houses physically onstage in any realistic manner.
Davis’s clever solution to these challenges capitalizes on the semi-staged concert format and creates a dramaturgical framework for the production. Drawing from the importance of radio broadcasts particularly toward the end of the musical, Davis presents Road Show as a sort of radio play. Standing mics are set downstage at which actors, dressed in clothes indicative of the 1920s or ’30s, deliver their lines, typically facing out front (costume design by Clint Ramos). The actors read stage directions as well as their lines (at least at the beginning of the musical), and sound effects are created with typical radio show techniques as an homage to early 20th-century Foley artists (sound design by Leon Rothenberg).
As the musical progresses, it moves steadily away from the strictness of the radio show conceit, and the large “ON AIR” sign hanging over the stage goes dark at a critical moment in Act Two.
(The only flaw in Davis’s design was a strange moment when Addision mentions almost stabbing Wilson the last time he saw him. This “almost stabbing” incident is usually acted out, but Davis chose neither to stage this moment nor have the stage direction read, causing confusion for the audience when it was referenced later in the musical.)
The stars of this radio show are undoubtedly Addison and Wilson Mizner, played by Brandon Uranowitz and Raúl Esparza. Uranowitz’s Addison is charmingly neurotic and desperate to find his own road, while Esparza’s Wilson is a smooth-talking and manic conman, constantly putting on new voices and personalities. Over the course of the play, we see Addison take on Wilson’s qualities in an effort to achieve the success both brothers are constantly seeking. The power reversals in the relationship between Uranowitz and Esparza are fascinating to watch, and both showcase their vocal chops, the height of which may arrive during their final duet, “Get Out/Go.”
The principal cast is rounded out by the talents of Jin Ha as Addison’s lover Hollis Bessemer, Mary Beth Peil as the Mizner’s mother, and Chuck Cooper as the Mizner’s father.
Davis also employs a versatile and talented ensemble to aid in the storytelling as they bring in postcard-like signs announcing the changing locations, offer much needed commentary on Wilson’s racial stereotyping during “Addison’s Trip” (a problematic song that often requires delicate maneuvering and may have finally worked with Davis’s take on it), and morph into showgirl-like figures. In addition to representing wealthy clients buying the houses designed by Addison, the ensemble also holds small houses and presents them with the air of assistants on a game show (solving the “look at it” problem).
This game show feel continues through the second act, when the Mizner brothers team up for their biggest con yet, and the stage is taken over by a greedy and insatiable capitalist urge. The ensemble throws beach balls to each other which grow increasingly larger with the size of Wilson’s lies. When the fraud inflates beyond the Mizners’ control, the back curtain falls and, where we expect to see more of the set revealed (as has occurred throughout the production), we instead see the bare back wall of the theater and realize it was all a show (smart scenic design by Donyale Werle). The flashy lights (designed by Mark Barton) fade, leaving us on a radio soundstage both messy and barren.
Road Show is a love story between two brothers. Like most Sondheim love stories, the relationship is not always a healthy one nor does it end with happily ever after. Davis’s production of Road Show expertly explores the shifting power dynamics between the two men and the growing power of capitalism and wealth in the United States as the nation moves into the twentieth century.
On his deathbed, Pa Mizner sings to his sons about the land of opportunity which awaits them: “Up to you to set the course / Of where we’ll go / With the limitless resources / You can plumb.” Through Road Show, we watch as that conception of a “land of opportunity” spirals into something sinister and out-of-control while the “limitless resources” are squandered at the hands of the brothers and, as we know all too well, prove not quite so limitless after all.
Despite its dreary messages, Road Show never loses sight of the humans at its heart and neither does this production. As much as Addison and Wilson hurt each other, they are stuck with each other. As Wilson sings, “And that is our curse / And that is the miracle.” As they walk off holding hands at the end of the play, I can’t help hoping that they will, one day, get it right. Maybe we can, too.
BCS-friendliness rating: 4 out 5 stars
I paid $34.25 with fees to see Road Show. I sat high in the mezzanine, and it was certainly far away from the stage. The “cheap seats” will definitely give you a different view at New York City Center. Luckily there is a lot to look at, and I never felt I was missing anything.