Chicago Theater Review: ROAD SHOW (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

by Lawrence Bommer on March 21, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


In one edifice—Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier—you find the beginning and possibly the end of Stephen Sondheim’s stellar career. The Courtyard Stage is hosting Gary Griffin’s well-received revival of Gypsy, the 1959 musical with lyrics by Sondheim, who would become a solo songsmith after delivering words to the Robert Lenzi, Andrew Rothenberg and Michael Aaron Lindner in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of ROAD SHOW, directed by Gary of Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, and, later, Richard Rodgers. Five floors above in the black box studio, Griffin has retooled the now renamed Road Show, Sondheim’s latest incarnation of a chamber musical that he’s been writing for 15 years. First called Wise Guys, it became Bounce when it failed at Goodman Theatre 11 years ago and did little better Off-Broadway. Fueled by a witty book by John Weidman and performed by one pianist and itinerant musicians, Sondheim’s latest score, characteristically embellished with sardonic lyrics, and inventively orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, repeatedly reminds us how much and how often nobody does it better.

Michael Aaron Lindner (right) and ensemble in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of ROAD SHOW, directed by Gary Griffin.As with Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, and Assassins, Road Show is a non-fiction musical based on cautionary historical figures whose grasp for life exceeded their reach. Believers in and exploiters of the shape-shifting American Dream, the Mizner brothers are early 20th century archetypes of American opportunism defeating the dream. Playing the angles, looking for the main chance and never giving a sucker an even break, these bad boys are fueled by a sibling rivalry that metastasizes into brotherly hate. Along the colorful 95-minute way they manage to get their claws into a hilarious host of American obsessions—social climbing, gold prospecting, moving pictures, and land speculation.

Egged on by their diplomat dad to grab the brass ring (“It’s In Your Hands Now!”), they embark on picaresque, money-losing ventures that first take them to the Alaska Gold Rush, where, opening a predatory saloon, they learn it’s better to fleece than be conned. (Nellie, the dance-hall floozie who the brothers fight over in Michael Aaron Lindner and Andrew Rothenberg in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of ROAD SHOW, directed by Gary Griffin.Bounce, has been eliminated altogether.)

One more self-inventing Jay Gatsby, Wilson (oily Andrew Rothenberg) is the shyster brother, wandering, philandering, squandering, and using up his good luck in pursuit of bad. It’s all part of the swindling circus the brothers call “The Game.” Equally driven but comparatively decent, Addison (Michael Aaron Lindner, delivering more revenge from a nerd) journeys around the world in one get-poor-scheme after another, with only a few sad souvenirs to show for his peregrinations–which is comically conveyed in the tale-spinning tour de force “Addison’s Trip.”

Eager to settle into respectability, Addison decides to build a home to house the bric-a-brac and objets d’art—and embarks into the world of architecture. At first he’s happy to create eclectic, historical-revival winter palaces for Palm Beach doyennes. Help comes from Addison’s wealthy patron and lover, the handsome, much younger Hollis Bessemer (heir of the Bessemer Converter and Furnace fortune). “The Best Michael Aaron Lindner and ensemble in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of ROAD SHOW, directed by Gary Griffin.Thing That Has Ever Happened” to Addison, Hollis wants his talented boyfriend to create an artists’ colony, not just a flamboyant enclave for moneyed snowbirds.

But, returning like clockwork to ruin his brother’s life, coke-snorting Wilson concocts a Florida real-estate swindle (“Boca Raton”) that’s the last straw for Addison as it breaks up his passionate partnership with Hollis. (The infamous boom/bust was satirized in The Cocoanuts (1929), the Marx Brothers’ first film with songs by Irving Berlin.) The brothers meet up in the afterlife, having died of heart attacks within three months of each other. In a literally heavenly finale, they croon that their co-dependence on each other was always a necessary evil.

Andrew Rothenberg, McKinley Carter, Michael Aaron Lindner, and Anne Gunn in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of ROAD SHOW, directed by Gary Griffin.Unfortunately, this retroactive celebration arrives too late to deliver design to a musical that, now on its third strike, remains a merry mishmash (or, as I called it in 2003, “a problematic hodgepodge” that couldn’t decide if it was serious or silly). A refreshingly unpretentious vaudevillian throwback, like the Mizners’ career, Road Show is one damn thing after another, its whole never coming close to outweighing its parts. Gary Griffins’ sprightly staging puts a strong cast to great use, including Anne Gunn as the indulgent mother and Larry Adams as grandiose Papa Mizner, the exact equivalent to Willy Loman’s world-conquering brother in Death of a Salesman.

Gracious in its muted glory, the closest parallel to Sondheim’s latest and seemingly last work is Falstaff, Verdi’s final opera: After seducing audiences with serious stuff, the maestro completed his career with pratfalls and laundry baskets. But he was just predicting George M. Cohan’s famous advice: “Always leave them laughing when you say goodbye.” There are worse ways to salute your own immortality.

Andrew Rothenberg (drinking) and ensemble in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of ROAD SHOW, directed by Gary Griffin.

photos by Liz Lauren

Road Show
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
scheduled to end on May 4, 2014
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