Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Directed by Gary Griffin. With Michael Aaron Lindner, Andrew Rothenberg, Robert Lenzi, Anne Gunn, Larry Adams. 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
The road traveled by Stephen Sondheim’s most recent work was a notably long and troubled one. The composer and his Assassins and Pacific Overtures collaborator, John Weidman, tinkered with the musical about picaresque brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner for more than a decade, presenting it beginning in 1999 in various revisions under the titles Wise Guys, then Bounce (seen in 2003 at the Goodman), and finally Road Show in 2008 at New York's Public Theater, where it was directed (to Sondheim’s satisfaction, as he indicates in his book Look, I Made a Hat) by the minimalist John Doyle.
Director Gary Griffin, a respected Sondheim interpreter, stages this apparently final version of the show for the first time in Chicago, and his bag of tricks comes hauled in a Doyle-y cart: As Doyle famously has with Sweeney Todd, Company and Merrily We Roll Along, Griffin and music director Michael Mahler put the instruments in the hands of the actors for this intimate staging in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s upstairs studio. And Scott Davis’s handsome scenic design provides a mostly bare playing space, backed by a map of the world that helps track the brothers’ extensive travels.
The post-Bounce revisions make the good-hearted, art-loving Addison (Michael Aaron Lindner) the story’s clear center, with slick huckster Wilson (Andrew Rothenberg) popping up again and again in Addie’s life like a malignant foil. The story now unfolds in an intermissionless 90 minutes, racing from the brothers’ promise to their dying father to their prospecting in Alaska and on to Addison’s whirlwind world travels (covered in an eight-minute musical sequence) and Wilson’s time as a New York bon vivant (five and a half minutes). Addie eventually finds happiness as an architect in newly fashionable Florida with a handsome young lover (Robert Lenzi), but Willie inevitably appears on his doorstep to muck things up again.
Lindner and Rothenberg convince as brothers who’re bad for each other, and the ensemble is largely winning and performs Mahler’s charmingly folk-tinged orchestrations for instruments like banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar with aplomb.
Yet while Griffin’s production is well realized, there’s still something oddly—very oddly, for Sondheim—unmoving about the whole affair. The composer’s lyrics seem as though they might have had all their usual wit workshopped right out of them, and the most stirring parts of his score are the bits that evoke numbers from Assassins and Into the Woods. And after all their years of work, Sondheim and Weidman still haven’t found the right way to transmit to us what it is about the Mizners’ story that so transfixed them.