Road Show

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman
Menier Chocolate Factory
(2011)

Road Show publicity image

The Menier has managed yet another coup in securing the European premiere of a new musical by Stephen Sondheim. Even better, Road Show is a characteristic confection of high quality that will inevitably appeal to Sondheim fans but also anybody interested in American social history, the growth of capitalism or just having a great night out.

This new musical, directed and designed by John Doyle who also oversaw the original production at the Public in New York, rushes us through the Great American Dream in the era of Ragtime, the first part of the last century.

Doyle, many will recall, is the man who reinvigorated Sweeney Todd in an unforgettable production that started life at the Watermill in Newbury, before conquering the West End and Broadway.

The plot of this latest work is driven by the entreaties of a dying father, played by Glyn Kerslake. In the song It's in Your Hands Now, he sets his two sons off on a journey of adventure into a new world.

The Mizner boys could hardly be more different. Bearded Addie or Addison played by Michael Jibson is a creative man who believes in earning an honest buck. By way of contrast, David Bedella's charming Willie or Wilson is a high class huckster, pure and simple.

Their characters are summed up in the first few minutes. After Addie strikes gold in Alaska, Willie fritters the cash away in a gambling den.

The boys seem to have gone their own ways forever, with Willie on the make and Addie becoming a visionary architect. However, money brings them together in the shape of an elderly widow. Willie marries her and gets bankrolled for every type of dodgy deal under the sun. At the same time, Addie creates something more concrete for her home.

Further on in the 1¾ hours, with the arrival of Jon Robyns as the sweet-voiced Hollis Bessemer, he along with the brothers forms a seemingly winning trio.

However, greed and artistic differences soon blight the team so that, after building Palm Beach up from a name with nothing to back it up to luxury resort, they meet their Little Big Horn at Boca Raton.

The money man, the promoter and the designer build a seemingly perfect brand but Willie's lies eventually get excessive and the house of straw falls down with a thundering crash.

Summarising the musical's main theme, (facsimile) $100 bills rain down throughout, so that the space both on stage and more widely is littered with them long before the end.

On song, Stephen Sondheim is probably better than anyone alive at blending music with lyrics and does so amazingly effectively, to complement John Weidman's intermittently amusing but always dramatic book.

From the start, many of the songs such as Gold and Land Boom have that great, edgy Sondheim quality, raging like an overflowing river but pouring out information as they roll along. There is also time for reflection and romance, peaking with the duet between Hollis and Addison, The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened.

The audience benefits from the intimacy of the Menier. Doyle, who has designed his own set, places the action in a long, narrow traverse between two banks of viewers, none of whom is any great distance from the drama and keeps all of the actors in a mid-sized ensemble on stage throughout.

Road Show will undoubtedly sell out its Menier run and the question is whether it might be yet another hit from that theatre that moves to a bigger venue? With winning efforts from its leading performers and the Sondheim/Doyle combination to market, there must be every possibility of a West End transfer.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher