The Stephen Sondheim musical takes on the infamous Mizner brothers.
In the early years of the 20th century, the infamous Mizner brothers, two brilliant con men, became legends, the kind of characters whose stories are too good to be true. But in the case of Addison and Wilson Mizner, most of it was true. They have been often written about and Stephen Sondheim has been trying over the years to stage a musical about them.
His latest attempt, with the book by John Weidman, has accomplished that elusive goal with the production of “Road Show” at Signature Theatre. According to Signature’s Playbill, “Road Show” has in more than 14 years had four scripts, three titles, three directors and two out of town tryouts.
Even Irving Berlin, a friend of Wilson Mizner, failed in an attempt to create a Broadway musical about Wilson, who among his many ventures, was also a playwright who had a couple of successful plays while he was in New York where he was also a boxing promoter and fight fixer, and the kind of opportunist who married a rich, significantly older woman.
Road Show attempts to follow the peripatetic wanderings of the brother from Guatemala, to the gold rush fields of Alaska, to early 20th century New York City and then to the Florida building boom where Addison, an untrained, successful architect, built the Spanish style stucco and tiled roof homes for the rich that became so familiar. And with his brother’s promotional savvy, built Boca Rattan. They were riding high until the housing bust. Some of Wilson’s buildings are still standing and are protected for their historical value.
There is a painful sadness to the boom and bust stories of the unscrupulous brothers, ever involved in shady schemes on their way to get rich quick dreams that often succeeded as they ingratiated themselves in New York, Florida and Hollywood society. Wilson even wrote some movie scripts.
This latest “Road Show,” under the direction of Gary Griffin was staged at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater and has been completely overhauled into a one-act, hour and forty minute production. The smartly paced show moves through 18 songs, but without the usual orchestra. Instead, there is a piano on stage played by the nimble Jacob Kidder who comes out 15 minutes before the performance to establish the mood by playing Ragtime music as the audience files in.
There is other music with individual performers coming on and off the stage: one playing a violin, another a set of drums, and others with a banjo, a ukulele and a guitar. The one number that has resonance is the love song, “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” Addison (Josh Lamon) and his lover Hollis (Matthew Schleigh) sing to each other.
Addison, the corpulent brother, builds his empires in a workman like fashion only to have his brother Wilson (Noah Racey), a handsome, tall, slender charmer, show up broke from some misadventure and addiction to cocaine, to take advantage of Wilson’s success and drag him down. Lamon and Racey are believable brothers who tear at each other, but love each other. They are fated to a dependency to rise and fall together. Every member of the cast, except for Lamon and Racey, and Dan Manning, who plays their father, perform multiple roles.
In this, Signature’s 26th production of a Sondheim musical, the Scott Davis scenic design configures Signature”s Max Theater with a large performance area that takes up much of the floor space, with the audience around three-quarters of the stage. It is an intimate setting that works. It is difficult to imagine “Road Show” being as effective on a traditional stage in a larger theater.
The “Road Show” setting at Signature is impressive, and this production makes it easy to understand how it was that they were able to bilk so many people and yet make so many powerful and social friends — they are sympathetic and likable.
“Road Show” runs through March 13, 2016 at Signature Theatre. Visit sigtheatre.org for tickets or call the box office at 703.820.9771.