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Road Show

Stephen Sondheim takes us on a musical journey with the infamous Mizner brothers.

Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner), Josh Lamon (Addison Mizner), and Sherri L. Edelen (Mama Mizner) in Road Show, directed by Gary Griffin, at the Signature Theatre.
(© Margot Schulman)

When you consider that Road Show, the third collaboration between the legendary composer Stephen Sondheim and writer John Weidman, has gone through several name changes and numerous rewrites over its 17-plus-year history, you have to wonder if it will ever follow the pair's other shows (Assassins and Pacific Overtures) to Broadway. Judging from its recent lukewarm revival at the Signature Theatre, that journey seems like it may never come.

Josh Lamon and Noah Racey play the based-on-real-life Addison and Wilson Mizner — who history shows were a dreamer and a schemer, respectively. The musical acts as a travelogue of the optimism and opportunism of the early-20th-century ideals and building out of the farther reaches of America.

The story begins at the end — as in, the end of Addison's life. He lies on his deathbed, and those whom he met along the way come by with sad remembrances of a life that could have been, told through the humorous "What a Waste." From there, it rewinds to the Mizner's stern father utilizing that same bed, as he lay dying, and instructing his boys to find fame and fortune.

The Mizeners first try with the Gold Rush in Alaska, but a poker game changes their fortunes in an extreme way. It also leads to the first separation of the brothers, with Addison heading to comical visits to such lands as Hawaii, Hong Kong, Bombay, and Guatemala, while Wilson tries to charm his way to fortune. Eventually, the two will meet up again and try to milk people with a land scam that promotes Boca Raton, Florida, as the best thing since sliced bread.

The problem is that despite a strong cast of singers, Road Show is a journey with songs that are too long, and scenes that seem to never end. Although Lamon does a solid job mixing humor with some serious issues, the character of Addison comes across at times as being both halves of Laurel and Hardy, a little too goofy in some moments and a bit too mean-spirited in others. Lamon effectively leads the ensemble in "Addison's Trip," which details the bad luck Addison has on a journey around the world to find fortune, but the song wears thin before he even gets to his final stop.

Racey plays his brother, Wilson, as almost one-note, bounding from one Next Big Thing to the next, without showing much empathy toward anyone left in his wake, including his brother Addison. Wilson's tale is told through "The Game," and although the ensemble has some cute moments in the song (especially Stefan Alexander Kempski as a disgraced jockey), it's too much exposition too quickly in the story.

Notable performers include Dan Manning as the Mizner's wise father, imparting wisdom in both life and death; Matthew Schleigh as Hollis Bessemer, the gullible business partner and lover of Addison, who gets mixed up in one of the brothers' schemes; and Erin Driscoll, who plays a variety of roles, lending her incredible soprano voice to the score.

In early scenes between the brothers, such as when they must share a sleeping bag in Alaska while mining for gold, Lamon and Racey seem to have established a nice rhythm playing off each other. Once out on their own, however, the bond is never re-established — even when they reunite their powers to try to make housing history in Boca Raton. And unfortunately, the height of their brother's story is where it narratively fails the most.

Director Gary Griffin paces the show well, especially in the way he brings his ensemble in and out as different people in the Mizners' lives. He creates some comical moments for Lamon and Racey with the sleeping bag, and the poker game is lively as well. And, thanks to set designer Scott Davis, there are some clever uses of the small stage, including hanging model houses from the rafters to signify the luxurious mansions that Addison designs. There is also some clever use of a second-level walkway to bring in characters in from time to time. But the story still drags and there's not much Griffin can do to control that. It would have made more sense to have the brothers be more involved in each other's lives and not force it, as it seemed to be in the end.

Sondheim's score, despite dragging at times, has some fun and beautiful arrangements. A love song between Addison and Bessemer, "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened," is a delight, and "Isn't He Something!," performed by Sherri L. Edelen's mama Mizner, is a hoot. Other songs need to be drastically cut down.

Thanks to lighting director Joel Shier, the stage is warmly lit with glimmering footlights framing the set, and Ivania Stack's costumes aptly reflects the changing of the years, as the story covers almost 30 years of the Mizners' lives.

One delightful part of the musical is Jacob Kidder, the ever-present pianist onstage who dons old-time garments and keeps the music moving throughout. Other cast members take turns playing instruments around the stage, but a supposedly humorous bit about a bad tuba player is overdone.

When you invoke the name Sondheim, it's hard to believe that a show of his could land so far from the mark. But unfortunately, Road Show just doesn't do the man or his legacy in musical theater justice. Here he went off-roading and couldn't find his way home.

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