Had an interesting experience last week when I saw the new Stephen Sondheim musical during its out-of-town-out-of-town run at the Goodman Theatre. In my opinion it’s still very much a work in progress and could do with some tightening up, tweaking, a bit of re-writing of the book and the recasting of a particularly hi-profile role. But it’s definitely Sondheim, with his trademark sound and clever lyrics. There’s a great lead performance and some really clever staging that’s worth, hmmm, half the price of admission.
This is actually the second “world premiere” of this musical, music and lyrics by Sondheim, book by John Weidman, an earlier version having been staged with different leads and director about a year ago. This incarnation is directed by Harold Prince, who’s had a lot of success staging Sondheim musicals, most notably Follies, Pacific Overtures and two of my all-time faves, Company and Sweeney Todd. Following the month-and-a-half-long run here in Chicago, the show heads to Washington D.C. before moving on to Broadway. Or not.
The musical is based on the lives of the Mizner brothers, two real men who made and lost their fortunes numerous times over, from the Gold Rush of 1896 to the real estate boom of Florida in the 1930s. The show is a testament to the resiliency of those in search of the American Dream of getting rich quick. A thread of subplot involving the rivalry between the brothers and their mother’s divided affections runs throughout.
Richard Kind plays Addison Mizner, the more sympathetic of the two brothers, the dependable one with a talent for design. His success as an architect propels the Mizner’s into their final boom as developers of Boca Raton. Howard McGillen has the tougher role as con-man Wilson Mizner, described in the program as a scalawag. Unfortunately he’s not that bad, which might be part of the problem. If he were a more heartless character, and not just someone who continually blows a good thing by foolishly speculating away his fortune and duping other, there could have been more tension between the brothers.
What I liked about the show:
- Richard Kind–He steals the show and holds it together. Most people will recognize Kind from his roles on TV’s Spin City and Mad About You. He’s great in this role, with a range of high and low moments that develop his character and hold the attention of the audience the minute he utters his first line. He gets most of the laughs and knows how to deliver them, as well as the looks and gestures associated with them.
- The staging–The clever use of drop curtains are often activated by cast members on stage with the flick of a rope that perfectly punctuates the change of a scene. In one impressive scene change, Addison gets his first creative brainstorm, and begins manipulating items in the air as he designs his first building. As he moves things around, cast members behind him follow his gestures to place different odd pieces around the stage, and suddenly a set flies in from above, creating the walls of the house, with all the randomly placed objects perfectly placed in the room. In another, the draped alter of a church is transformed into the lavish bed in a mansion, taking Wilson from wedding to honeymoon in an impressive set change that drew laughter and applause from the audience.
What I wasn’t crazy about:
- The story–I just couldn’t really get too invested in the story of two brothers who aren’t content when they have a good thing, and in stretching to make MORE money, lose it all and have to start again. I just didn’t care. It wasn’t until the second act, when Addison begins to come into his own as a success on his own terms when no-good brother Wilson reappears did the story get briefly interesting. A hurdle to the storytelling is the flashback approach, which takes any suspense out of the equation.
- The music–While it was Sondheim, and any Sondheim is good in my book, it just wasn’t catchy enough. There was no hook, no tunes that really stuck with you five minutes after the curtain went down. A couple of the numbers in the second act, the tighter and more enjoyable act of the two, seemed to gel well and the song “You” stood out as memorable above the rest, but much of it started to sound the same.
- Jane Powell–The veteran of stage and screen (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) is the only other big name in the show, starring as mama Mizner. Unfortunately, while she delivered her lines with spunk, her singing was thin and strained, and was quite painful to listen to. Her singing was one of the many hindrances working against the show in the first half.
So, was I glad I saw it? Absolutely. I’ll always take the opportunity to see Sondheim professionally staged. Richard Kind was a surprise and I’d definitely keep an eye out for future performances by him. It was also fun to see recent Tony-winner Michele Pawk in the female lead. And it was interesting to see this work in progress. Should it succeed, I’d be interested to see the finished project, just to see how much it will have bounced back from the version I saw.
(Aw common, you knew I couldn’t get away without at least once bouncy pun. Doh, I did it again!)