Any Sondheim fan is familiar with the story behind the creation of Road Show – or as the composer himself puts it - the 'saga of four acts' that sees the show develop from 1998 to 2008, taking on three different titles, multiple narrative frames and over thirty unused songs. The journey to the current version takes up over 120 pages in Sondheim's autobiography-by-lyric “Look, I Made a Hat”, and the evolution of the show makes for fascinating study for any musical theatre academic or eager theatre fan.
Despite initially calling itself the 'UK première' of this somewhat troubled musical, Road Show was in fact presented in its current form in a handsome production at the Menier Chocolate Factory back in 2011, directed by John Doyle, completing the saga and leaving the world with what currently is Sondheim's newest musical.
The Union Theatre's production reduces the show even further to a highly economical fringe budget, but stripping the material back this far exposes the severe narrative and tonal flaws that are deeply etched throughout both the musical and dramatic structure, and ultimately this production adds nothing new to the musical's overall performance journey.
Road Show tells the story of two brothers, Wilson and Addison Mizner and chronicles their life from the 1880s through to the 1930s across America, with Wilson repeatedly proving himself to be a con artist and vagabond, and Addison a talented architect, and more interestingly, homosexual. The ultimate struggle within the piece is a conflict between the tone and the dramatic arc, and Phil Wilmot's uneven production doesn't go far enough to hang the various elements together to make the audience care, or even convince us of the necessity behind this musical treatment.
John Weidman's book is so clinically linear that it doesn't allow enough time for characters to develop or make a suitable connection with the audience. The structure goes from event to event to event without the behaviour within these ever feeling fully realised. The show ends up feeling like a number of set pieces loosely hanging together, from Addison's 'On My Way' travel song to the exploration of Wilson's downfall and their joint manipulation of Addison's skill in creating the city of Boca Raton.
There are certain elements where the creative team have lost faith in the material and have attempted to 'smoke and mirrors' various moments in order to paper over the cracks. Unnecessary addition of ensemble members and the overuse of an otherwise effective mirror backdrop add nothing to songs such as 'Talent' and 'You', instead they cloud the central love story between Addison and Hollis and their moment feels neither natural or sufficiently earned. At these moments, where Sondheim finally finds his stride within the score, the lyric should be doing the work, but instead the audience are distracted.
For the amount of ensemble members on stage the larger numbers can't help feel underwhelming, both vocally from the female singers and due to some rather clunky and unconvincing choreography, that never suits the style or narrative. Moments that should be still are too kinetic, with additional dance breaks again pulling focus and wresting with the overall style of the piece. The mime is never quite strong enough to justify the lack of props, and stylistically it feels half baked and an economical and practical decision rather than an artistic one.
For many the key element of Road Show is its exploration of two homosexual characters – the first explicitly gay characters within the Sondheim canon. Played almost as a side note, there's little contextual relevance to Addison and Hollis' relationship, and at times it felt a little glibly handled, right down to the 'South Pacific' style musical theatre hold, gazing out into the audience. “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened” is staged neatly, and there are moments of tenderness that do manage to find their way out amongst the noise and are quite charming, but these are rare.
Staged end on there are multiple sight-line issues and clunky blocking that means many areas of the audience miss parts of the action. The final confrontation scene between the two brothers for example seems to resist any sense of practicality and you end up constantly looking at their backs and an unevenly balanced stage.
The cast are led by three convincing leads, with Howard Jenkins' Addison carrying much of the show on his shoulders. At times he's a little too earnest, but he manages to draw out the inconsistencies in his character enough to grab interest. Andre Refig's beautifully rich baritone gives weight to some of the more intense numbers, and he carries the charm the character needs to make his flaws both believable and strangely endearing. Similarly Joshua Leclair finds light and shade in Hollis and delivers an honest rendition of a particularly intricate character, and his rendition of 'Talent' is the closest the production gets to a showstopper. Elsewhere, I'm afraid to say it's a little patchy, with strange accent choices and scenery chewing from some of the ensemble, who could do with ramping up their vocals a notch and not being so apologetic when on stage.
Road Show is a curiosity piece, and one that specialists will enjoy picking over for years to come. As a footnote in the wider Sondheim canon, there is sufficient argument in rediscovering this tricky piece, but sadly this production creates as many problems as it attempts to solve.
s beautifully controlled and intelligent production is all shifting nuance and finely calibrated detail, from Hugh Vanstones subtle score to the faint drift of dry ice that intimates Hildes fatal otherworldliness and the remarkable nuances of physicality with which the actors embody their roles ..."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Fiennes delivers a terrifically compelling study of a man going out of his mind with fear and ineffectual remorse irascibly impatient and relentlessly negative about younger talent; haunted by the thought that he somehow willed the disasters that have paradoxically made his career."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Mr Fiennes throws himself in to the part. Even when Ibsen makes little sense often it is possible to admire the Fiennes stage technique."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"... a production that edges towards the three-hour mark but speaks hauntingly about the dark heart of ambition and the madness of desire."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard