Road Show’s bumpy journey is well documented. One of only two Stephen Sondheim musicals to never play Broadway, the only major New York production opened at the Public Theater in 2008 and a transfer never happened. This week, Encores! Off-Center is reviving the musical for a concert presentation that doesn’t fully iron out the kinks, but offers a chance to hear this book and score–both the good and the forgettable parts–performed by a fantastic cast.
Based on a true story, Addison Mizner (Brandon Uranowitz) is an architect and the younger brother of Wilson Mizner (Raúl Esparza), a smooth-talking con man. Addison wants to achieve something, to build a name for himself. Wilson wants to make a lot of money doing as little work as possible. Road Show isn’t concerned with anything beyond this dynamic between the brothers. Wilson is constantly convincing his brother to go along with his schemes and Addison always regrets it and swears never again.
The writing tells us what a pleasure it is to be in Wilson’s company as a way of explaining why people fall for his constant bullshit. It’s the “complicated genius” trope, but Sondheim and book writer John Weidman put Addison there to call him out on it. I’ve seen regional productions of Road Show that take Wilson as its center, but this iteration, directed by Will Davis, puts the emphasis on Addison. As played by Uranowitz, Addison holds a deep contempt for his brother, the layabout swindler who doesn’t think he should have to work to make a buck. But Addison also feels that temptation in himself, probably, as the show implies, put there by their parents, and he has to actively resist his brother’s easy attempts to seduce him to the dark side.
He’s not always successful. In fact, the musical builds to a shattering climax where Addison chooses to reject his brother to preserve his sanity. Wilson isn’t so easy to shake, though–he follows Addison even into the afterlife. It’s right that Davis’ production focuses on Addison. Addison is the more complicated character. Where Wilson is driven forward by the pursuit of money only, Addison tries to do a little more, to express himself artistically, to have real relationships with his mother (a luminous Mary Beth Peil) and his lover, a blast furnace heir named Hollis Bessemer (Jin Ha, singing beautifully). Wilson neglects their mother until she’s dead and coerces Addison into pushing Hollis away. Addison is left with only his regret and his boorish big brother.
Uranowitz and Esparza are both exciting stage actors. Uranowitz has established himself as a versatile talent, able to wring true feeling from both comedy and drama. Here, he sings with an emotional depth that comes from that same internal fount. He’s adept at showing us how people cover hurt with humor in an array of methods and holds Road Show together with his hilarious and heartbreaking performance. Esparza has long been a powerhouse on the New York stage and his showmanship is on unmatched display here. He brims over with presence, enveloping the world of the play as Wilson should. It’s believable when characters say they would do anything to be around him–I feel that way whenever Esparza’s on stage.
What makes an actor a great interpreter of Sondheim’s songs is their ability to channel the intelligence of both the lyrics and the music and align that with the emotional intent that Sondheim fused into it on its writing. Both Uranowitz and Esparza have that talent. Sondheim writes, unwaveringly, from character and that’s true in his songs for the Mizners here. Road Show’s score has a tendency to sound like one long song interspersed with other short songs, but what Sondheim does, cleverly, is that he takes the central musical theme and uses it over and over again to show the way Wilson manipulates Addison and the way Addison internalizes his brother’s “advice.” His trademark lyrical dexterity is also on display, no more so than in “Addison’s Trip” where the younger Mizner travels the world over, collecting a series of useless souvenirs.
It’s also notable that this sequence features some problematic Orientalist writing that the production does not handle well. Esparza drops into a “Chinese” dialect at one point and an Asian American actor expresses lighthearted frustration and leaves the stage, but that doesn’t excuse something that does not and should not happen in the first place. It’s casual racism and it’s easily avoidable.
All in all, Will Davis’ production makes a good case for the show. If his radio play conceptualization is not entirely fulfilled (when the actors are not at microphones, how are they being recorded?), it’s small potatoes. Davis conjures up a new world for this play to take place in that dispenses with the traveling trunks and suitcases Weidman calls for in the text. It allows for brisk transitions between the show’s numerous locations and brings all the performances downstage and into the audience’s lap. Road Show is intimate in nature and it’s welcome that Davis keeps most of it playing at the lip of City Center’s massive stage.
Road Show is Sondheim’s most current piece of writing to receive a full production. While it doesn’t hold a candle to his earlier work, it’s nothing to sneer at. Its long gestation may not be over, but this latest version by City Center is as good a reason as any to keep looking at it and thinking about how to make it work. Esparza and Uranowitz have a wonderful chemistry and are both at home with the score and in their roles. It’s inspired casting and brings a new life to the material.