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Road Show Review: Sondheim Minimized, and It Works

More than a decade after its over-the-top debut, director Gary Griffin nicely pares down the musical with an intimate staging and a small, well-matched ensemble.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Road Show   Photo: Liz Lauren

When it debuted at the Goodman in 2003, Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show (then titled Bounce) was an exercise in overkill. The story of the rise and fall of hucksters and dreamers, Addison and Wilson Mizner, was buried beneath layer upon superfluous layer of glitzy production values and all-hands-on-deck dance extravaganzas. As Sondheim shows go, the tale of two brothers was a rare disappointment, the heart of the show buried beneath extraneous spectacle.

More than a decade, two titles and God-only-knows-how-many rewrites later, Road Show (briefly titled Gold Rush in yet another an earlier incarnation) is up and running at Chicago Shakespeare. Directed by Gary Griffin, this a pared down, is an intimate staging with a 12-member cast often playing their own musical instruments. Under Griffin’s direction, the 90-minute musical is a touching, bittersweet symbol for the perils of creativity itself.

A portrait of the artist as both a spectacular failure and a glorious success, Road Show tells the story of Addison (Michael Aaron Lindner) and Wilson (Andrew Rothenberg) as they wind their way from rags to riches at the turn of the twentieth century. 

Addison’s dreams and talents parallel those of countless sensitive, aspiring virtuosos and astutely depicts that creativity without business acumen can easily become as worthless as a painter who can’t afford to buy paint. But if Addison is an inveterate dreamer, his brother Wilson is an inveterate schemer. Together, the two play out a pitched struggle between polarities, Addison representing artistic integrity and Wilson swindling salesmanship.

Wisely, Griffin has gone minimalist with this production. As Road Show travels from San Francisco to Alaska to South America to India, New York City and finally, Boca Raton, set designer Scott Davis indicates the odyssey with little more than a massive map backdrop. The human drama is rich against the simple setting, the brothers providing a stark yet complex study in contrasting temperaments, morals and attitudes.

As Addison, Lindner turns in a performance that is intensely empathetic, a near-perfect foil to Rothenberg’s sleek, fast-pitch snake-oil salesman. Lindner’s Addison is a heart-tuggingly vulnerable dreamer who has a naive belief that honesty and hard work are the key to fame and fortune. Rothenberg’s cunning Wilson is Addison’s opposite, a smooth-talking, dangerously charismatic manipulator forever concocting shortcut scams to riches.Together, the pair has combustible chemistry, a battle of light and dark, earnest and glib, honesty and hucksterism.

Griffin’s ensemble meshes seamlessly, with memorable turns by Larry Adams as the brothers’ demanding, larger-than-life father and Anne Gunn as their devoted, long-suffering mother. McKinley Carter turns in a hilariously tragic performance as a filthy rich widower who becomes hopelessly snared in Wilson’s web of sex appeal and cocaine-fueled con games. And everyone in the ensemble gets a chance to augment Matt Deitchman’s limber, fluid piano accompaniment with various cast members breaking out snare drums, horns, triangles and flutes.

That show’s score isn’t on the genius level of earlier Sondheim works such as Sweeney Todd, Assassins, or Sunday in the Park with George. But under the savvy musical direction of Michael Mahler, the music is ably performed by a cast that knows how to deliver all the emotion and humor embedded in the intricate, intimate 90-minute show.

Road Show continues through May 4 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets start at $48. For more information, go to chicagoshakes.com.

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