Mini-review – Road Show – Phil Willmott at the Union Theater

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It seems odd that the most recent musical by Sondheim (well, hardly recent: it’s been bouncing around since 2003) is making its second UK outing at a tiny venue like The Union Theater. But Road Show seems to be a troubled show with a troubled life. It’s been renamed twice, and it’s never really had a West End run.

What’s the deal, then? In fact, the musical is a bit of a mess. I mean, we start of the night with the jolt of a character coming on stage and singing, “I’m the one you fucked.” Is this all that was left, for Sondheim to choose to shock? The music, you can hear the Sondheim all the way through it, but the story … oh, the story. It’s kind of “backstage at Funny Girl,” the true story of the “lovable scoundrel” Fanny Brice married … though this is the story of two brothers of that era, one of whom gambled and swindled (and was popular – Wilson Mizner), the other of whom (Addison Mizner) was a bit of a wallflower and a failure until he takes up being an architect. The musical follows along their adventures, as well as covering their relationships with each other and their mother … and, eventually, with Addison’s lover, Hollis Bessemer. We cover a large swath of American history over the course of the evening, from the Alaskan Gold Rush to gilded age New York to land speculation in Florida …

… but it all seems to add up to nothing. The characters didn’t enchant me, the songs slipped away, the story felt as cobbled and mish-mashed as a four hundred year old English farm house. I imagined Sondheim wanted to keep some of the songs, but then let the plot get worked and reworked until there was almost nothing left, and this nothing is what we got to see. It was well sung, and the production did a lot to make the space come alive … but it all felt hollow, like Wilson Mizner’s promised investment opportunities. This show will sell out, I’m sure – it’s a must for Sondheim completists – but in its current form it simply isn’t suitable for a grander outing.

(This review is for a performance that took place on February 18th, 2016. It continues through March 5th.)

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