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Richard Kind and Howard McGillin in Bounce
(Photo © Liz Lauren)
As portrayed in Bounce, Addison Mizner is a reluctant scoundrel while brother Wilson Mizner is an enthusiastic one; but both are scoundrels, no mistake. The emotional Addison repeatedly strives for legitimacy but allows the callous Wilson to compromise that legitimacy. Commented one first-nighter who disapproved of both brothers, "I don't think Sondheim has any moral principles." Indeed, if one cannot sympathize with either Addison or Wilson -- if not exactly root for them -- then Stephen Sondheim does not have a show.

Of course, Bounce is not solely the vision of composer/lyricist Sondheim. It's the product of several years' work (including legal battles over production rights) by Sondheim, bookwriter John Weidman, and director Harold Prince. These three have not collaborated since Pacific Overtures in 1976, so Bounce is a major theatrical event -- good, bad, or indifferent. Right now, it is indifferent.

The show is based on the real-life, California-born Mizner brothers, who hustled their way across America from the Alaska gold fields of 1897 to the Florida land boom of the 1920s. Born in 1872 and 1876 respectively, Addison and Wilson died within weeks of each other in 1933. Individually or together, they wrote Broadway plays and Hollywood movies, played cards and sold antiques from Hong Kong to Europe, and created Boca Raton, Florida. Weidman has freely adapted the facts of their lives -- for example, he has combined various women in Wilson's life into a single character, made Addison far more dependent on Wilson than he was, and provided the bachelor Addison with a male lover. But the stage brothers are not nearly as colorful or interesting as the real Mizners were and neither one is particularly likable, although Addison comes closer. The first-nighter quoted above was right, in a way: Sondheim is more interested in the psychology of relationships than in providing moral balance or making characters appealing, even in a musical comedy.

And musical comedy is how Messrs. Sondheim, Weidman, and Prince have promoted the show, with a heavy emphasis on "comedy," calling it a vaudeville in the style of a Crosby and Hope "road" movie. Bounce does have some good laughs -- many of them nailed by Richard Kind as Addison -- but the book is not jokey and definitely not funny enough to compete against such Broadway laugh machines as The Producers or Hairspray. It also has some four-letter vulgarities that seem glaringly out of place given the period setting.

Bounce isn't a dance show, either. Choreographer Michael Arnold has few opportunities to shine; most of the 19 cast members are not dancers and there are no big production numbers, though "The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" in Act I and "Boca Raton" in Act II approach that status and are devoured hungrily by the audience. Ditto the few emotional musical numbers, such as Mama Mizner's (Jane Powell) Act I solo "Isn't He Something?" (accompanied by strings in Jonathan Tunick's lovely orchestration) and the Act II song for Addison and his lover, "You" -- the only melody one might describe as lush.

Michele Pawk and Howard McGillin
in Bounce
(Photo © Liz Lauren)
What the creative team seems to mean by "musical comedy" is that Bounce is an old-fashioned, book-and-number show with a pastiche score. Broadway struts, lilting waltzes, end-rhyme lyrics, and musical buttons hold sway. There's an overture, rich brass and woodwinds, a few sweet tunes, and a catchy, funny title song to open the show. But Sondheim will do it his way, infusing even a pastiche score with his own special brand of melody, intelligent patter, and the sort of rhythmic vamps that are his signature. Sondheim simply can't do bad work, but he doesn't step ahead musically here, nor does he reach backward to the scores of Broadway's golden age.

The vaudeville style of Bounce is conveyed principally by Eugene Lee's spare, airy scenic designs that use old-fashioned drops and flown pieces. Howell Binkley's lighting and Miguel Angel Huidor's costumes extend the never-gaudy pastel palette of the scenery, with Huidor using exaggerations of pattern or cut for character effect.

The cast is first-rate, starting with Kind, an instinctive clown who can work big and loud or soft and small. Howard McGillin is an excellent foil for him as Wilson, with a strong voice. Michele Pawk is underutilized as the proto-female but is nevertheless alluring and/or amusing by turns. Jane Powell, Herndon Lackey, and the boyish Gavin Creel offer support as (respectively) Mama Mizner, Papa Mizner, and Addison's lover. They deliver as needed, with the trim-figured Powell given more to do and proving she can still do it.

A mandarin director, Prince keeps the pace fast and inventive but never fussy with business. He gives full measure to the brothers, focusing Bounce on the love-hate relationship of these two nearly to the exclusion of all else. Bounce is neither big nor glitzy by Broadway standards, which is okay; but it needs to be funnier or warmer, or both, in order to be rated higher than second-tier Sondheim.

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