Raúl Esparza and Brandon Uranowitz Liven Up Sondheim's Road Show

Will Davis directs the show for Encores! in the best production of this musical you’ll probably ever see.

Raúl Esparza, Brandon Uranowitz, and Jin Ha in Road Show.
Raúl Esparza, Brandon Uranowitz, and Jin Ha in Road Show.
(© Joan Marcus)

If you saw the original production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Road Show at the Public Theater in 2008, you may be skeptical about seeing the new Encores! Off-Center revival. The culmination of a decade's worth of writing and rewriting and legal action, Road Show (a.k.a. Bounce, a.k.a Wise Guys) was a dreary affair upon its premiere, lethargically directed by John Doyle and humorlessly performed by a cast led by Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani.

The problems extended to the text, too. Weidman's script lacked the depth needed to truly understand the characters. Sondheim's melodies were noticeably borrowed from his extensive collection (Assassins in particular), with lyrics that seemed so predictable that they were almost parody ("He had a real spark / made a mark"). I remember it being a long 110 minutes.

As far as I can tell, the authors have made very few, if any, adjustments for the Encores! production, but director and choreographer Will Davis has injected something into this staging that was missing 11 years ago: life. Davis's Road Show is so alive and vibrant that it's almost like watching a brand-new musical.

Road Show is the story of Addison (Brandon Uranowitz) and Wilson (Raúl Esparza) Mizner, two brothers who had a minor cultural impact on the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. The musical follows their travails after the death of their father (Chuck Cooper), who encourages them to use their considerable gifts to help build up America. Encouraged by their mother (Mary Beth Peil) to seek gold in Alaska, the siblings head to the Klondike where ne'er-do-well Willie discovers the joy of taking risks, while Addie decides to search the world for a sense of purpose. These individual adventures eventually cause rifts and reunions, coming to a head in Boca Raton, Florida, where, with con man Willie's help, architect Addie and his unwilling lover Hollis (Jin Ha) strike it rich by creating an economic bubble.

Davis smartly stages the work as a radio play, giving the actors the freedom to refer to their scripts. It also allows the world-traveling text to unfold without getting bogged down in different locations (Donyale Werle's inventive set creates transitions with the help of title cards). Clint Ramos dresses the actors in chic period costumes, while conductor James Moore brings Jonathan Tunick's authentic Sondheim-style orchestrations to life with great beauty.

The best part of Davis's production is that he finds the humor in the material. Road Show is a lot funnier than I remembered it being, and while I still find Weidman's book pretty sleepy, two performers whose quirks are naturally vaudevillian enliven it considerably. Esparza, who gets better and better with every show, oozes slick, smarmy charm (and has some entertaining bits of choreography), while Uranowitz is undeniably moving, particularly during his romance with Ha (they do right by the best number in the score, Sondheim's gorgeous love song "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened"). Peil and Cooper fill their less sizable roles with the right amount of gravitas.

"Sooner or later, we're bound to get it right," Wilson says in a rare moment of reflection. It took more than a decade, but Davis's production pretty much does. Road Show will never be that unheralded gem of American musical theater, but this version is probably the best you'll ever see.