Lyric's "Road Show": Putting It Together

Tony Castellanos & Neil A. Casey in "Road Show"
(photo: Maggie Hall)

Sooner or later, we're bound to get it right”; thus goes the final line in the musical Road Show
now being presented by Lyric Stage. The same might be said for the creators of the show. As Stephen Sondhiem, who wrote the score for the show, described in a very lengthy essay (no fewer than a hundred pages in four chapters or “acts” in his seminal work, Look I Made a Hat) this musical has had a complicated gestation. It evolved from its workshop reading to its first production (then entitled Wise Guys), then briefly as Gold, on to its revised form as Bounce, to the “final” version (if anything by composer/lyricist Sondheim has a real “final” form) as Road Show. Its Off-Broadway premiere by the Public Theater in 2008 lasted barely two months. A large part of its acceptance (or lack thereof) may be that Sondheim and his Book author John Weidman never quite managed to embrace the basic reality that their two lead characters, based on the real-life scheming Mizner Brothers, aren't very likable, to put it mildly. The form in which they first appeared in Wise Guys was transparently as two vaudevillian brothers: Wilson (here portrayed by Tony Castellanos) and Addison (here brought to life by Neil A. Casey).

Patrick Varner & Neil A. Casey in "Road Show"
(photo: Maggie Hall)

The problems with the Book have only partly been solved; what remains is lack of involvement in the lives of these two con men. The vaudeville elements are still discernible in the first half of this ninety minute production (wisely kept as an intermission-less piece) which, for those unfamiliar with the story, may be a true challenge. There are clues dropped in the opening songs, way too rapidly, so that one might miss the fact that the play opens in the afterlife with the death of one of the brothers and that each has had a lifetime of ups and downs. It doesn't help that Sondheim steals music (abetted by Orchestrator Jonathan Tunick) from some of their own past work, most notably from their collaboration on Assassins, in the song It's in Your Hands Now, sung to the brothers by their Papa (Sean McGuirk).

It isn't until their Mama (Vanessa J. Schukis) sings the plaintive number, Isn't He Something, about Wilson, that the story begins to move us (and seems borrowed from Children and Art from Sunday in the Park with George). The alterations to the plot, making it move perhaps too quickly in the second half of the story, are rather extraordinary even for a work in progress. Arguably the most striking example of plot revision is the sudden introduction of a love affair between Addison (a closeted gay man in real life) and a rich young man named Hollis Bessemer (Patrick Varner). This resulted in a change from a heterosexual love song between Wilson and his girlfriend Nellie, a character from Bounce who was dropped for Road Show, to a love song between the gay lovers, Addison and Hollis, by far the most beautiful song in the show,You Are the Best Thing That Ever Has Happened. Also dropped, incidentally, was an oft repeated refrain, “bullshit” (just as well, since the expletive might be rightly deemed too presidential these days). Though the lyrics soar, they don't add any heart to the show, which had just portrayed their first meeting as a promising business relationship in another lovely song, You. All of the characters, without exception, seem bent on (to use the current buzz word) being transactional. Sondheim refers to them as the “community of suckers”, from the Alaskan Gold Rush to the sales of Florida swamp land and lots of other destinations along the way.

The Cast of "Road Show"
(photo: Maggie Hall)

Thanks to Co-Directors Spiro Veloudos and Ilyse Robbins, (with Choreography by Robbins), to the Music Direction by Jonathan Goldberg, and to the technical crew: Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, Costume Design by Amanda Mujica, Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski and Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill, things are about as clear as they may ever be, and make for mandatory viewing and hearing for any Sondheim buff. It's certainly not his best work, but it has some of his loveliest music and stinging lyrics, delivered by a talented cast of eleven in some three dozen roles.

Mention is made in the program notes that this show is about the warping of the American Dream and the need people seem to have to leave their mark on the country's culture. That the show ends up with crooked real estate developers overstaying their welcome may feel too close to home right at the moment. This shouldn't dissuade one's attendance, however, but increase the motivation for seeing this latest work (a decade ago!) from theater's greatest living composer/lyricist.

Let there be one caveat, in the words of Addison (who briefly became a Broadway play producer): “a drama critic is a person who surprises the playwright by informing him of what he meant”.


"Opera House": Edifice Complex

The Metropolitan "Opera House" in progress
(photo: Fathom Events)

Opera House, a two-hour historical treatment of the home for the past fifty years for the Metropolitan Opera in New York by award-winning documentary filmmaker Susan Froemke, is not just about the building but also the people involved in its creation. As you may see from the photo of the mortar and metal that form the foreboding framework at the area to become known as Lincoln Center, it was quite an undertaking. Utilizing archival footage and current interviews, as well as still photos from the 50's and 60's, the film takes an objective view of the building and its barriers, along the way portraying the roles of opera impressario assoluto Rudolph Bing, city planner Robert Moses and architect Wallace Harrison.

Where once the Sharks and Jets pirouetted to the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Steven Sondheim in the film version of West Side Story, would emerge a huge new complex. Moving from its downtown building erected in 1883, the construction of the Lincoln Center complex had its challenges, which Froemke wisely highlights with personal stories of the people involved, from high profile names such as Leontyne Price (who opened the new house for the Met in 1966 with Franco Zefferelli's production of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra), to the head of the supernumeraries and other tech workers. It makes for a fascinating story of its own, with even some blemishes intact (though the eminent domain issues displacing poor tenement residents is pretty much glossed over). All in all, it's a thoroughly researched and coordinated tale of a building that we all thought we knew so well.
There will be an encore HD presentation next Weds. January 17th at a theater near you.


ArtsEmerson's "Ada/Ava": Suspended Animation

The Cast & Crew of "Ada/Ava"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

Those who are fans of animation (and who isn't these days) will find the current production of Ada/Ava an enthralling experience, a fascinating amalgam of high art and modest technology. ArtsEmerson has presented many cutting edge programs, but this is an incredibly original use of visuals to tell a simple story, harkening way back to the first shadows created by a campfire on an ancient cave wall through the wizardry of Indonesian stick puppetry silhouettes to the cinema as we know it today.

The Cast & Crew of "Ada/Ava"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

In the short space of an hour, the Chicago-based group known as Manual Cinema creates a timely approach to the mysteries of love, loss and loneliness as they relate the story of two twin sisters who care equally for a New England lighthouse and one another. Reminiscent of the first part of the Disney animated film Up, with techniques mirroring the magic of Julie Taymor's puppetry in her stage version of Disney's The Lion King, the troupe utilizes vintage overhead projectors with their craft on full view of the audience, leaving theatergoers in a state of suspended animation as though immediately involved within the mechanics of their work, (with a live score, no less), requiring eight multi-tasking and multi-talented artists.

The show, with us only until this Sunday January 14th, is a unique (as in literally one-of-a-kind) offering that should be a must-see in these dark times. It's that illuminating.