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Tarnished Gold

Matthew Murray reviews the original cast recording of Stephen Sondheim's Bounce, just released by Nonesuch. logo
Stephen Sondheim's first new musical in nearly a decade, Bounce was highly anticipated when it played both the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 2003. But this show about the fortune-seeking brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner had lukewarm receptions in both cities and was never picked up for a New York run. To add insult to injury for composer Sondheim, librettist John Weidman, director Hal Prince, and the starry cast, an Actors' Fund benefit concert of the show -- originally scheduled for this Sunday, May 9 -- was postponed indefinitely.

For Bounce, which has already had a troubled existence and no less than three titles -- it was originally known as Wise Guys and then briefly as Gold! -- the cast recording is not the reputation-saver that its fans may have been hoping for. The CD was released today by Nonesuch, and it's attractively produced with superb sound quality. Yet it will serve as proof to those who didn't see the show in Chicago or D.C. that Bounce is, at best, second-drawer Sondheim. While it's great to have the score preserved for the same reasons that it's great to have any high-profile musical captured on disc, the material itself fails to satisfy.

Even with repeated listenings, Bounce doesn't sound appreciably better at home than it did in the theater. It's helped a bit by the absence of Weidman's book and the presence of a fine orchestra under David Caddick's musical direction, not to mention Jonathan Tunick's fine orchestrations and a spectacular cast including Howard McGillin, Richard Kind, Michele Pawk, Gavin Creel, Herndon Lackey, and Jane Powell. What's missing, and what sets Bounce apart from so many of Sondheim's other major successes, is a sense of vivid inspiration. There's no musical or dramatic hook here such as the Grand Guignol that inspired Sweeney Todd, the confluence of old Broadway and new Broadway that gave rise to Follies, or even the pointillism that infused Sunday in the Park With George. A musical must have style, and that's something Bounce consistently lacks.

Correction: The show doesn't really have its own style but it has elements that Sondheim seems to have borrowed from his other musicals. Doesn't the vamp leading into the title song strongly recall the vamp of "By the Sea" from Sweeney Todd? Don't many of the show's brassier portions sound as if they could have been lifted from Merrily We Roll Along? Doesn't "Addison's Trip" recall the storytelling devices of Pacific Overtures? Even Frank Rich of The New York Times, in the unintentionally hilarious notes that he provided for the CD booklet, can't avoid likening aspects of Bounce to aspects of Sondheim's previous works. His essay is never more ridiculous than in its opening paragraphs, where he compares Bounce to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Merrily We Roll Along. The very inclusion of these notes suggests a desperation to establish an alternate history of Bounce than the largely unfavorable one that's already been written.

Despite what Rich has to say, the show's songs are undistinguished. Very little here compares favorably to Merrily We Roll Along or even to Passion, both of which had their own unique sound. Numbers like "What's Your Rush?," "The Game," "Next to You," "I Love This Town," and "Isn't He Something!" -- all of which are contained in the first act -- seem like they came from Sondheim's 40-year-old bag of tricks with little to set them apart. Even the lyrics are mostly uninspired: "The Aurora Borealis is a bust next to you / Every bag of gold is nothing more than just a bag of dust next to you," goes one section. "See how he glides / He's having the time of his life / Life filled to the brim / And I've had the time of my life / Living through him," goes another.

There are a few nice selections. The title song, performed by McGillin and Kind, is certainly catchy -- and that's a good thing, as it's repeated a number of times. There's an attractive duet for McGillin and Pawk, "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened"; and the second-act numbers "Addison's City" and "Boca Raton" combine to form a lengthy musical sequence chronicling the Florida land boom (and subsequent bust) that's one of the score's highlights. There's even a bonus track, "A Little House for Mama," sung by Kind; it's attractive but it's clearly a cut song that deserved to be cut.

It's difficult to dismiss this or any Sondheim show; still, it seems as if there's much to appreciate in Bounce but little to love. In fashioning musicals with truly classic scores like Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music, Sondheim may have set the bar too high: He has conditioned musical theater lovers to expect so much from him that a middling effort like Bounce can only be a disappointment. By all accounts, this is exactly the show that he and Weidman wanted to write, but it must finally be considered a lesser work.

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