“Art isn’t easy,” sings the frustrated artist George in Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George. While a completely different show in both tone and substance, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Road Show puts that phrase front and center. Not because this show — which deals with a pair of real-life sibling con artists who found their fortune during the heyday of the Alaskan Gold Rush and the South Florida real estate boom of the ’20s — has anything to do with painting, but because this musical has proved a puzzle of a creative challenge for this team.
Back in 2003, I visited an earlier version of the property at the Goodman. Then called Bounce, the show had a core of an interesting idea surrounded by lots of excess and noise, including a running time of 2 hours and 40 minutes. And at the end of the evening, I left scratching my head wondering what the point of it all was — two unlikeable brothers do unlikeable things driven by greed (but under the banner of The American Dream) and sing a bouncy ditty at the end about what they haven’t learned along the way.
Fast forward to 2014, and, in a testament to the show’s themes of resilience and reinvention, Sondheim and company hunkered down and reemerged with a renamed, simplified and refocused 90-minute one-act. A few secondary characters have been left in this road show’s dust, including a blowzy sidekick chorus gal (played by the delightfully dry Michelle Pawk at the Goodman).
Under the steady hand of director Gary Griffin, this iteration succeeds in many important ways thanks to smart and specific staging and a rock-solid cast. Scott Davis’s streamlined scenic design features a giant map, with pin lights indicating the location of this sprawling journey. A multitasking 10-person ensemble (which includes some epic Chicago talent) doubles as instrumentalists, coloring in the mostly piano-led accompaniment while giving Sondheim’s jaunty score an appropriately roustabout saloon feel.
Yet, despite all the effort, the material, which still focuses on two very flawed folks, doesn’t grab hold as the creators seem to intend.
Leveraging the intimacy of the 200 seat upstairs venue, Griffin ensures the story remains centered around the two brothers — Addison and Wilson Mizner (played by Michael Aaron Lindner and Andrew Rothenberg, respectively). After gaining ground courtesy of the Klondike Gold Rush, Addison, the more sympathetic of the two, flees from his brother’s high-rolling lifestyle for the more predictive world of investing — which also proves to have its risks. He eventually finds steady success through his innate creative talents, which evolve into designing elaborate summer homes for wealthy families. Along the way, Addison finds love in a young artist, Hollis, which eventually erodes when Wilson reenters Addison’s life to begin a new high-stakes conquest: real estate development.
What makes Road Show equal parts interesting and aggravating is that while the two central characters experience hardships and heartbreak, they end up right where they started: two rascals kicking dust. Which, in itself, is provocative — we may think we have control of our destiny, but our innate drivers eventually lead us down a certain path. And while Addison — especially as played by the thoughtful and empathetic Linder — suffers the most tragic course in his internal struggle to extinguish his desire for excess, it makes you wish that he’d stand up to his brother and build a happy home for him and his partner. But where is the high stakes excitement in that?
Still, the show feels munch more structurally sound than a decade ago, and the themes of resilience and reinvention are resonant, if unsatisfyingly realized.
“Road Show” plays through May 4 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Upstairs space. More info here >