Alexander Gemignani and Michael Cerveris in Road Show
(© Joan Marcus)
Alexander Gemignani and Michael Cerveris in Road Show
(© Joan Marcus)
Fifty-five years after having read Alva Johnston's biography The Legendary Mizners, which follows the startling lives of the enterprising, often antagonizing siblings Addison and Wilson Mizner -- and a decade after having worked with John Weidman to realize his conviction that their story would make a great musical -- Stephen Sondheim brings Road Show to the Public Theatre, directed and designed by Tony Award winner John Doyle. The unpleasant news about this slaved-over property -- once known as Wise Guys and then Bounce -- is that whatever Sondheim saw in Addie and Willie and their early 20th-century exploits he's unable to project to the audience.

The American-dream-as-nightmare thesis that Sondheim and Weidman promoted in their not-dissimilarly-themed Assassins -- the scattered stars logo for which lighting designer Jane Cox briefly appropriates here -- is trotted out again on wobbly colt's legs. True, the hopeful authors may see wily, eventually cocaine-sniffing Wilson (Michael Cerveris) and naively trusting, eventually cocaine-sniffing Addison (Alexander Gemignani) as representative of two warring sides of a stumbling Everyman in a country suffering growing pains. But as Willie and Addie go from prospecting in the far northwest to real-estate development prospects in the far southeast, what appears on stage are a pair of sad-sack, patience-trying mama's boys whose few redeeming values aren't worth anyone's time.

Perhaps the most potent measure of the tuner's deficiencies is something no reviewer thought he'd ever report about Sondheim: The lyrics aren't very good. Yes, they're rhymed -- and rhymed and rhymed -- with Sondheim's practically inimitable facility, but too many of the fast-paced, intricate patterns are set on repetitive melodies and not differentiated enough by Sondheim's usually sympathetic orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick. There is one beauty of a song, though: "The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened," which is sung by Addison and his male lover (and financial backer) Hollis Bessemer (Claybourne Elder). It's possibly the only out-and-out love song Sondheim has ever allowed past his typical romantic ambivalence.

Having done wizard's duties reviving Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Company, Doyle hasn't located the same resources this go-round. While he hasn't handed the 15-member cast instruments, he's again kept an entire contingent on stage throughout, so that members not in scenes have to feign interest in what's going on. Sitting on stacked filing cabinets and boxes -- including one crate that does double-duty as a coffin -- or strutting around to music, they frequently join the central characters in tossing fake money in the air. (Get it? Ours is a greedy, wasteful nation.) Still, the ensemble members definitely look smart in the outfits Ann Hould-Ward has designed to conjure the blueprints Addison ran up for his fabled Palm Beach homes.

The major figures don't look as good -- and can't in the parts as written. By script's end, Cerveris is at such a loss he's repeating his wide-eyed Sweeney Todd, while Gemignani sings solidly through a vacant role. Playing Mama Mizner in a shapeless frock, the wonderful Alma Cuervo has been given no character to develop, nor has the deep-voiced William Parry as Papa Mizner or Elder as pretty young Hollis.

"Sooner or later we're bound to get it right," Wilson says in a rare reflective moment. When he does, one might imagine Sondheim and Weidman saying the same thing to each other about this show. Maybe someday they will get it right. So far they haven't.