Road Show continues at the Union Theatre, London until 5 March.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
The adage that musical aren’t written but rewritten could’ve been conceived to describe Road Show – Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s portrait of two real-life brothers wrestling with the American Dream at the turn of the 20th century.
The road to Road Show was a long one: it was one of Sondheim’s first ideas for a musical back in the early 1950s and might have been his first Broadway show had Irving Berlin not snapped up the rights. But it was also a rocky one, hampered by rewrites, restructures, retitles (Wise Guys, Gold! and Bounce) and a protracted legal battle over ownership. It finally reached its destination – Off-Broadway at the Newman Theatre – in 2008, where it enjoyed modest success, despite the weight of expectation.
Putting aside its difficult birth, however, Road Show stands up as a very credible, likeable show – a modern musical to be admired if not adored. Its newest incarnation at the Union (technically the first UK production, if one considers John Doyle’s Menier version in 2011 a transfer of the Broadway original) is a vivacious revival with a youthful cast that – importantly – frames the show differently to other productions.
In a series of vignettes, we meet the Mizner Brothers (strangely spelled Meisner in the programme) at various stages in their lives. Addison is the gentle, creative type who, after a few false starts, finds his niche in architecture and builds his fortune on the Florida coast designing homes in the International Style. Wilson is his entrepreneurial cardsharp sibling for whom life is a dice game, careering from career to career in an attempt to make it rich. Between them stands Addy’s love interest, Hollis Bessemer, heir to a steel dynasty but disowned by his father.
While those who know Road Show might be used to a more mature pair in the lead roles, director Phil Willmott has wisely cast two relatively young actors: Howard Jenkins as Addison and Andre Refig as Wilson. This instantly changes the perspective on the unfolding events, allowing us to grow up with the boys and follow them as they embark on their journey from the Alaska gold rush to the Florida land boom. To help link the various episodes in their lives, Willmott cunningly introduces the concept of a mature Addison (Steve Watts), who is compiling his memoirs and revisiting in his mind his tempestuous – and perhaps even near-insestuous? – relationship with his brother.
RAM graduate Jenkins does a first rate job as Addison, capturing the character’s wide-eyed innocence and, later, utter exasperation as his American Dream is soured by his manipulative brother. He’s entirely convincing in the role and manages to gel the show’s many sprawling parts together. Refig also turns in a credible performance, but he doesn’t fill the stage as wholly as Jenkins. Rightly or wrongly, there’s no doubt we’re watching the Addison Show.
Joshua LeClair is also excellent as the vulnerable, gullible Hollis. Just when you think the show isn’t going to show any emotion, LeClair pulls it out of the bag and tears at your heartstrings. His face-off at the end with Jenkins is genuinely moving – for me, the highlight of the show. Nods should also be given to Steve Watts (Papa Meisner/Old Addison) and Cathryn Sherman (Mama Meisner), the former being in particularly strong voice throughout.
The remaining nine cast members play a rich variety of supporting roles and make the most of Thomas Michael Voss’ choreography in the cramped space made available. The set is simple and sufficient – much less cluttered and fussy than the Menier’s transverse production – although the giant mirror at the back of the stage, beautiful as it is, tends to muffle the (unamplified) voices behind it.
A three-piece band – MD Richard Baker on piano, Richard Burden on drums and Katt Robb on violin – communicates the joy of the score effectively, touching as it does on various aspects of American musical culture, from hoe downs and Sousa marches to vaudeville songs and advertising jingles. And if proof were needed that Sondheim can (still) write beautiful, simple tunes, just listen to the likes of ‘The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened’, ‘Brotherly Love’ and ‘Isn’t He Something’.
Road Show presents a most unusual topic for a musical, but is masterfully constructed by Sondheim and Weidman and certainly smarter than your average show. Taken alongside the creative duo’s Pacific Overtures and Assassins, it can be seen as the final part of an American history trilogy exploring the country’s darker side. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea: it’s almost too smart for its own good at times, and its broad episodic structure doesn’t provide a great deal of depth. (Also, where are the female roles?) But it’s still a compelling piece of theatre and a fascinating curio as Sondheim’s last fully completed show.
Readers may also be interested in:
Road Show at the Union Theatre – meet the cast