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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Public


  Alexander Gemignani and Michael Cerveris /PH: Joan Marcus

Welcome home, Mr. Sondheim.

The title of his musical is Road Show, and it's his first new work to open officially in New York in 14 years, since Passion, which won the Tony Award for best Broadway musical in 1994. It's great to have the most important figure in American musical theater in the last half century showing up again, at age 78, with something new to add to his pioneering and hugely influential career.

Is it his best? Far from it. Is it, ultimately, less satisfying than it might have been? Yes. But it's Stephen Sondheim. And anyone with any interest in American musical theater should head to the Public Theater to catch it before its limited run ends on Dec. 28.

Road Show is about the roads taken and not taken by its two prime characters, the real-life brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner, in the late 19th and early decades of the 20th century. But since the libretto is by John Weidman, Sondheim's collaborator on Pacific Overtures and Assassins, we know it has to be about more than that - it has to, in one way or another, be about the United States, its history and its failures.

If we had any doubt, it disappears in the musical's first 10 minutes, starting in the opening number, Waste. The song is sung by an almost unrecognizable - and superb - Michael Cerveris as Wilson and an almost equally excellent Alexander Gemignani as Addison, along with the rest of the 15-member cast, which takes on the other roles.

The title of the song is the theme.

Not long after the song ends, the boys' father, on his deathbed, urges his young sons to make something of their lives. He extols the "new world" that is America - "pristine, unspoiled," where "anything was possible." And the unsettled question of "what type of nation we should be," given the "boundless reaches of a mighty land."

The answer for Weidman, at least in this libretto, is "Waste."

It's a world where if you "didn't like what you were, you soon made yourself into someone else" - a scenario for so many in American history. And indeed, that's what the brothers do. Heading off to the Yukon in search of gold, they find some - after much hard work and suffering - only to have Wilson, the family wastrel, sell their deed to buy a saloon. His behavior drives the brothers, once close and loving, far apart.

Wilson is, to his mother, a man who lives "to be bad," but who also lives "to sparkle." But his sparkling takes the form of drinking and whoring, of gambling and lying, of fixing boxing matches and horse races, of a penchant for cocaine, of marrying for money and wasting it away. He doesn't like what he is, but everyone he makes himself into is a "Waste."

Addison is the one who, to his mother, lives to be good, who cares for her. He travels the world - Hawaii, Hong Kong, India - investing in one disastrous business venture after another but takes in what he learns and finally achieves his calling, as an architect designing over-the-top homes for the rich in Florida, in a tiny spot of undeveloped land called Palm Beach and, later, in a city called Boca Raton that the reunited brothers seek to develop, but ultimately exploit.

There's a young man, Hollis Bessemer (portrayed convincingly by Claybourne Elder), the scion of a wealthy family, whom Addison meets on the train to Florida and who has a vision of turning Palm Beach into an artists' colony - a noble idea that, even as he and Addison become lovers, soon gets lost in, to use Sondheim's words, "the tradition of acquisition." It's the American tradition, and it's yet another example of &


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