Stephen Sondheim’s musical Road Show has taken a long time traveling to its Boston premiere at Lyric Stage. The show has had a decades-long history, appearing under the titles Wise Guys (1999), Bounce (2003), and Gold! Despite these various incarnations, Road Show, with a book by John Weidman, never found favor with critics or audiences, even after Sondheim’s frequent revisions. The performance now runs 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The production opens on Addison Mizner's deathbed and flashes back to childhood, where it begins to follow the true story of Addison and his brother Wilson Mizner. The show moves through a travelogue of the brothers' dreams, shortcuts, and predictable failures, taking us from their gold-rushing early years in Alaska to their success in 1920s Florida, where they helped instigate the development and growth of Boca Raton (and from which they greatly profited).
After the brothers strike gold in Alaska, Wilson bets their stake in a poker game, wins some money, but then makes a bad investment in a tavern that goes bust. Addison takes off alone on a series of stops where he squanders his money, buying a share in a pineapple plantation in Hawaii, and then traveling to India and Guatemala, where none of his ventures pay off.
When the brothers meet again in New York, Wilson has married a wealthy widow, delighting in spending her money as a playboy and philanderer. Meanwhile, Addison has moved to Florida, where he has met the love of his life, Hollis Bessemer, a wealthy and naive heir to a steel fortune. Addison becomes a successful architect in Palm Beach and settles into a comfortable life. Just as things seem to be going well, however, Wilson, who was run out of town, shows up in Florida broke and homeless. Addison and Hollis fall in with Wilson’s scheme to sell land in Boca Raton under false pretenses, which eventually turns to ruin.
Along the way, their mother, Mama Mizner, acts as the narrator, reading their letters aloud, following their itinerary. Although she is partial to her black-sheep son Wilson, it is Addison who takes care of her. The dysfunction of the relationships between the brothers, and between Mama and her sons, is suggested but given little breathing space.
As Addison, Neil A. Casey is sympathetic and solid in his performance. Tony Castellanos, as Wilson, uses his booming voice and run-the-guy-over approach effectively in projecting his flawed character. The other members of the cast, including Patrick Varner as the needy Hollis, and the always charismatic Will McGarrahan, become multiple characters on the brothers’ itinerary. Vanessa J. Schukis as Mama Mizner delivers a fine, glossed-over description of Wilson’s antics in "Isn’t He Something."
Even Sondheim’s most committed fans would have a hard time finding the few redeeming features in this score and lyrics, which sound much the same as the action unfolds. Music director Jonathan Goldberg, on the keyboards, deserves a medal for making so much out of the music as one of only three musicians.
Spiro Veloudos, artistic director of the Lyric who staged the musical, with Ilyse Robbins as codirector and choreographer, has vowed to produce one Sondheim work each year. While he’s mounted excellent Sondheim productions in the past, there’s no glossing over the listless effect of Road Show.
Sondheim should have left Road Show behind at the side of the trail he has blazed through the American musical, marked with works that have stretched and enriched the genre — not including this one.