Needless to say, Sondheim fans (myself obviously included among them) would be ecstatic if the master could come up with another winner in this late stage of his career. Many of these fans can't have failed to notice that, with the possible exception of Sunday in the Park With George, none of the shows that Sondheim wrote after his professional separation from Prince is comparable in quality to the musicals that the pair created together. From all reports, the most problematic of the latter-day Sondheim shows was Wise Guys, seen briefly and by relatively few people at the New York Theatre Workshop some years ago. That developmental production was directed by (gasp!) Sam Mendes, who apparently had no affinity for the material. When it was subsequently announced that Sondheim would be re-teaming with Prince on a much-revised version of the show, musical theater mavens held their breath in anticipation. Would the old magic be rekindled?
The answer, as you no doubt have already read elsewhere, is: Not in this case. Rewritten and retitled, first as Gold! and now as Bounce, the show is now playing at the Kennedy Center following an engagement in Chicago. Its central characters are the real-life Mizner brothers, Addison and Wilson, who cut quite a swath through America and beyond in the early years of the 20th century -- Addison primarily as an architect, Wilson primarily as a playboy. (One thing I learned from Bounce: The first syllable of the brothers' last name is pronounced with a long "i" sound, as if it were spelled "Meisner.")
Bounce suffers from an extreme lack of focus, and though it may be the hoariest cliché in the musical theater sphere to say that the show's book is largely to blame for this, facts are facts. The book is by John Weidman, who previously collaborated with Sondheim on Pacific Overtures and Assassins. Bounce is meant to make points about American ingenuity, sibling rivalry, the place of the artist in society, and so on. The show proceeds in appropriately picaresque fashion as it follows one or another (or both) of the Mizners to such far-flung locales as Hawaii, Hong Kong, Guatemala, and Boca Raton, Florida; but the fact that a work is picaresque doesn't mean that it should feel disjointed.
In response, Sondheim has written a score that, for all its riches, is annoyingly fragmented. This is obvious from the opening number -- the title song -- sung by the Mizner brothers in the afterlife. The song is melodic, energetic, and yes, bouncy, but it keeps stopping and starting up again, thereby setting the pattern for what we're going to hear subsequently. Time and again throughout the score, a terrific number will be rolling along beautifully...then the music will stop abruptly for one or more of the characters to deliver one or more lines of dialogue...then the music will resume, only to stop again later on. On top of all this, and contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, the songs are not really constructed along traditional lines; for example, the gorgeous ballad "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" doesn't have a verse. Since we're talking about a genius here, we can assume that the fragmented nature of the score was a conscious choice on Sondheim's part; but was it the right choice?
The good news about Bounce is that it has been felicitously cast, with one or two caveats. As Addison Mizner, Richard Kind proves himself a dynamic musical theater performer, singing very well indeed and effortlessly communicating all of the character's conflicting emotions, from joy to frustration to shame. Also praiseworthy is Howard McGillin as brother Wilson; this handsome, golden-voiced baritone has sometimes come across as rather bland on stage, but here he's charming and suave.
Michele Pawk plays Nellie, a character that has been forced into the narrative like a square peg into a round hole. Nellie is meant to represent several women in Wilson's life but she is more of a construct than a recognizable human being. As a result, we never really cotton to her -- even though the role is played and sung to the hilt by the gorgeous Pawk. (I'm told that there was no Nellie or equivalent in the show when it started out as Wise Guys. Though the idea of adding a female love interest to the story makes sense on paper, it doesn't work very well as executed here.)
Herndon Lackey works very hard in 10 small roles, including Papa Mizner and Cyrus Bessemer, but he doesn't possess the necessary chameleon-like ability to sharply differentiate between them. And then there's Jane Powell as Mama Mizner. For years, Powell has been publicly saying that she really can't sing anymore. While that's an exaggeration -- she still sounds fine in her lower register, as was demonstrated in a concert performance of 70, Girls, 70 at the York Theatre a few years back -- it does seem that Powell's soprano notes have effectively left her. When she sings "above the break," the sounds she produces are weak, scratchy, and generally pitiful. The eminently sweet and lovable Powell was a great choice to play the Mizner boys' mom in that she manages to generate sympathy for a largely unsympathetic character, but only God and Stephen Sondheim know why this treasured performer has been embarrassed by being required to sing in a vocal register she no longer possesses. (For what it's worth, a colleague of mine who saw the show just a few days before I did reports that Powell was in fine voice on that occasion; but her singing has been roundly criticized by other people who attended other performances, so my experience was apparently not a fluke that can be ascribed to her having laryngitis or some other illness.)
At the height of his powers, Hal Prince brilliantly directed every Sondheim musical from Company through Sweeney Todd before stumbling with Merrily We Roll Along. Prince was so good in those days that he even managed to make a thrilling stage show out of Evita -- which, when you think about it, might have been a total mess in lesser hands. Sadly, Prince's rare talent for shaping, molding, and focusing a production seems to have receded; certainly, it's no more evident in Bounce than it was in his direction of the Carol Burnett play Hollywood Arms. Prince's lack of control over Bounce extends to his having allowed a number of frighteningly loud gunshots in Act I; this may have been done in an attempt to create some sense of excitement but it only serves to make the audience anxious and uncomfortable.
Eugene Lee's sets, Miguel Angel Huidor's costumes, and Howell Binkley's lighting serve the production well in helping to depict the various locales of the story (including the afterlife). The show's relatively small amount of choreography has been well done by Michael Arnold and Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations (for 16 pieces) are superb as always, but Duncan Robert Edwards's sound design must be listed in the show's "minus" column. The problem isn't that the volume level of the show is too loud, a thunder effect excepted; rather, it's that the balance between the singers and the orchestra is far enough off that about 15% of the show's lyrics are unintelligible. (This in a Stephen Sondheim musical. Can you imagine!)
A brace of mixed-to-negative reviews has all but assured that this production of Bounce will not be coming to New York. Happily, the company is to record a cast album for the Nonesuch label, thereby preserving most of what's good about the show. If the album is well produced, as is Nonesuch's wont -- if some or all of those damned song interruptions are removed, and if the recording sessions happen to catch Jane Powell on a good vocal day -- Bounce may well yield one of those albums that cause listeners who never saw a show to wonder why it wasn't a hit.
Stephen Sondheim is reportedly planning a new stage musical based on Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray film in which a man is doomed to live one day of his life over and over again until he gets it right. Perhaps the solid, pre-existing structure of the movie will allow Sondheim's protean talent to flower once again. Although Bounce has its pleasures, the show is most notable in pointing up the sheer genius of the Sondheim/Prince shows of the 1970s; it prompts us to look back and marvel at how these two titans made the extraordinarily difficult creation of musical theater masterpieces look so damned easy.
[Note: Jonathan Abarbanel reviewed Bounce for TheaterMania when the show played in Chicago earlier this year. To access that review, click here.]