If the American cast album of Stephen Sondheim’s Bounce is anything to go by, the show was a bit of a stinker. The songs were a near parody of everything the composer had ever written and the storyline thoroughly unengaging. Since then, UK director John Doyle, who had a triumph in the West End and on Broadway with a stripped-down Sweeney Todd a few years ago, was brought in and, as Road Show, it has changed almost beyond recognition. That’s not to say that it completely works in its present form, and it certainly couldn’t be described as vintage Sondheim, but it’s bearable, even if the whiff of self-pastiche lingers.
The show has had numerous incarnations. It started life in 1999 as Wise Guys, was re-launched as Gold! a couple of years later, to turn up again as Bounce in 2003, under the experienced hand of Hal Prince. Even he couldn’t make it work. No Sondheim show has had such a tortuous journey and the lean version that Doyle finally fashioned in New York and, now at the Menier, still bears the scars.
The sound world is closest to Assassins and Merrily We Roll Along, not surprising as its subject, like theirs, is wholly American, both celebrating and questioning the great entrepreneurial dream. It tells the real-life story of the tempestuous relationship between the Mizner brothers, Addison and Wilson, who represent the pioneering go-get spirit of early twentieth century America. As the skyscrapers began reaching for the stars, the pair scrabbled from penury to riches and back, exploiting many a business opportunity on the way.
Doyle and a hugely talented British cast, led by David Bedella and Michael Jibson as the brothers, give Road Show every possible chance to shine and it intermittently glitters like Yukon gold, although its relentlessly upbeat tone becomes wearing long before the 95 minutes is up.
There’s a huge misjudgment from Sondheim and his scriptwriter John Weidman (who also collaborated on Assassins and Pacific Overtures) in the “Addison’s Trip” number, which takes a clichéd journey through the nations, stereotyping Hawai, India, Japan and Guatamala horribly, a sign maybe that the great composer is out of touch.
Doyle’s traverse production hardly puts a foot wrong – although one more shower of dollar bills might set you screaming – and the strong-voiced, hardworking ensemble deserve all the applause they can get. Jibson stands out, with a detailed and sincere portrayal of the more cautious of the two, constantly frustrated and flummoxed by his wide boy brother.
Road Show never quite finds its voice and this run may appeal more to the Sondheim enthusiast than the casual theatregoer. It’s hardly going to go down as the composer’s finest hour and the prospect of a West End transfer, like its illustrious predecessors at the Menier, seems slim. Catching this run, therefore, is advised as it may be the only chance to test for yourself if this troubled opus has finally redeemed itself.