“Carelessness and being free of care,
Aren’t they the same?”
Since its inception in 1999, Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show – with book by John Weidman – has undergone considerable rehabilitation, not least three title changes, and so has rarely been seen on this side of the Atlantic. John Doyle transferred his Off-Broadway production to the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2011 for its European premiere but this is the first UK revival since then, director Phil Willmott continuing a mini-residency at the Union after last month’s fine Fear and Misery of the Third Reich.
But where the episodic nature of Brecht’s storytelling worked well, Road Show is less successful in stringing together its vignettes of chasing the American Dream into something more affectingly substantial. The show follows the contrasting but always connected lives of brothers Wilson and Addison Meisner (per the programme) as they seek to parlay guts and gumption into something more, taking unsuspecting benefactors, love interests and easy marks along for the ride.
As the story bounds from the goldmines of Alaska to the real estate boom in Florida with plentiful stops inbetween (one song voyages between Hawaii, Asia and Guatemala alone), it rarely digs in with any real depth. Wilson is the ambitious chancer, twinkle-eyed and twinkle-toed as he charms all around him; Addison is a touch more reserved, wanting the chance to explore his dream of becoming an architect (so he’s got somewhere to house the souvenirs from his trip) to come to him, but we never really get to know either.
Andre Refig is powerfully charming as garrulous gambler Wilson and Howard Jenkins contrasts well as the more measured Addison and both are possessed of striking singing voices, which are matched well by Richard Baker’s strong musical direction. But both characters lack substantive support – the former’s marriage to a rich widow is passed off speedily whilst the latter’s love affair with rich kid Hollis (at least this character is actually credited with a name) is also crucially underdeveloped, despite good work here from Joshua LeClair.
And perhaps as a reflection of this, Willmott’s production feels strongest at its simplest, the key relationships gleaming when they’re given the chance to simply shine, as with Cathryn Sherman’s mother who delivers the show’s strongest musical moment in ‘Isn’t He Something’, a misguided paean to preferring one child over the other. Elsewhere, the ensemble work is occasionally a little too unfocused, Thomas Michael Voss’ choreography not always organically connected to the material.
There’s no escaping that Road Show isn’t prime Sondheim and whilst this production doesn’t always manage to transcend the weaknesses in the show, it is still possessed of a winning charm, thanks to the sterling efforts of Refig and Jenkins.