It has been quite the Stephen Sondheim season in Chicago this winter, with productions of “Gypsy” (on the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre mainstage), “Passion” (at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, where Danni Smith is giving a brilliant performance as Fosca) and “Into the Woods” (at Mercury Theatre Chicago).
But with the arrival of spring has come the real revelation: “Road Show,” the dramatically revised and reimagined edition of Sondheim’s musical (with book by John Weidman) that debuted at the Goodman Theatre in 2003 under the title “Bounce!” and more or less fell flat. Completely reworked and bearing its current title, the show opened Off-Broadway in 2008. And now, Gary Griffin (who also directed “Gypsy”) has brought the superbly overhauled, tightly focused “Road Show” to the artfully reconfigured Chicago Shakespeare Upstairs space. It’s a revelation.
Fierce, funny, lean and heartbreaking, “Road Show” is the story of the often stormy, frequently calamitous relationship between two real-life brothers in the early decades of the 20th century. It also is a portrait of the crazy, relentless, often destructive engine that drives this country, and that is fueled in equal parts by dreamy brilliance and disastrous skullduggery.
Addison Mizner (played with a marvelous combination of indomitable optimism and feverish pain by the bearlike Michael Aaron Lindner) was the visionary architect and planner who, during the Florida real estate boom of the 1920s, created many of the iconic Mediterannean Revival style buildings that dominate the landscape of both Palm Beach and Boca Raton. He also happened to be gay, with social connections forged by way of an unlikely lover — a handsome young patron of the arts, Hollis Bessemer (Robert Lenzi in a smart, sensitive turn). Addison’s older brother, Wilson Mizner (Andrew Rothenberg, ideally lean, volatile and manipulative), was a pure opportunist with criminal impulses — a selfish charmer, a gambler, a user and a ladies’ man. Think of the siblings as a whale and a shark, and while they sometimes swam in the same tank, there was bound to be blood in the water along the way.
The brothers are initially set on their path by their Papa (a fervent Larry Adams), who sings the anthemic “It’s In Your Hands Now,” about their responsibility in the “land of opportunity.” He soon dies, and the boys, urged on by their mama (fine work by Anne Gunn), head off to make their fortune in the Alaska Gold Rush. They find their nugget but eventually go their separate ways, each experiencing his own particular kind of success, failure and adventure. Particularly memorable is Addison’s post-Yukon, money-losing but eye-opening trip around the world as chronicled in “That Was a Year,” with Sondheim’s ever-dazzling lyrics, Lindner’s pitch-perfect performance and Griffin’s clever staging (on Scott Davis’ ramped road of a thrust set) combining for a giddy, picaresque voyage.
Griffin’s open-road approach to the show works wonders throughout, with the actors doubling as instrumentalists on violin, flute, drums and more, with Matt Deitchman on piano throughout, and with Michael Mahler overseeing the impeccable music direction.
McKinley Carter plays a series of socialites with great style and edge, and there is winning ensemble work by Derek Hasenstab, Regina Leslie, Bri Sudia, Jake Mahler and Jim DeSelm in this cautionary tale about the thin line between creativity, ambition and the quest for success, and the inability to say “enough” or recognize the beauty of contentment.