Road Show – Union Theatre, London

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: John Weidman
Director: Phil Willmott
Reviewer: Stephen Bates


Having had its UK premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2011, Stephen Sondheim’s last (to date) major show has moved no more than half a mile down the road for its revival, the first production to originate in this country.

As with Assassins, a previous collaboration between Sondheim and writer John Weidman, Road Show digs deep into the American psyche for its inspiration. At the show’s heart lie the conflicts between dreams and reality, idealism and big business, decency and crookedness. These conflicts are embodied in two brothers who are opposites pulling in different directions to reach the same goals. The Sondheim/Weidman team tackle their themes wittily, showing us that, if the American Dream is ever reached, it will have become tarnished on the road towards it.

Based on real-life characters, the story begins as the 19th century gives way to the 20th. Papa Meisner (Steve Watts) is dying and he urges his sons Addison (Howard Jenkins) and Wilson (Andre Refig) to take up his legacy. He sings It’s in Your Hands Now as he sets them off on the road to find the riches that the land of opportunities has in store. The road takes the artistic Addison to Alaska, Hawaii and Guatemala and the ruthless Wilson to bars, gambling dens and a loveless marriage to a rich widow.

Their ultimate destination is Florida, where the brothers make their fortune establishing the city of Boca Raton, designed by Addison who has become a talented architect. They join up with Hollis (Joshua LeClair), a rich kid with ambitions to set up a colony for artists.

Florida is transformed, but it is Hollis who sees the corruption that underpins the dream, as profits are made from deceits driven by Wilson, to which Addison has become a knowing accomplice.

In many senses, there is too much to see on the road that the show takes, leaving too little time for the characters or situations to develop fully. Phil Willmott’s production does not really solve this problem, nor does it present us with brothers with whom it is particularly easy to empathise.

However, as with all Sondheim’s work, there are times when the show takes flight thanks to the quality of its songs and Willmott exploits such sequences to full advantage. Ranging from rousing show tunes to soft laments and taking in a little country, Sondheim provides a rich and distinctive score, here performed with the accompaniment of a three piece band under the direction of Richard Baker.

Irony abounds in the lyrics and is used cleverly in Willmott’s production. Mama Meisner (Cathryn Sherman) praises the feckless Wilson, the son that she never sees, with Isn’t He Something. “Look at him glide” she sings while, on another part of the stage, Wilson dances alone and oblivious to everyone. Sondheim’s unique gift for capturing a universal truth in a single spine-tingling phrase and underscoring it with the perfect melody remains undiminished and is in evidence throughout.

The musical highlight comes when the company celebrates the birth of modern Florida with You, intercutting with Addison and Hollis who are expressing their growing affection for each other. The song then merges into the haunting love ballad The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened, the only gay duet in the Sondheim canon.

Road Show has a troubled history, it is uneven and it is never likely to take a place alongside Sondheim’s greatest works. Nonetheless, this revival is welcome for bringing out many of its fine qualities and spreading messages that need to be heard. When Sondheim tells us “there’s a road straight ahead, a century beginning”, neat touches in Willmott’s production emphasise that the opportunities and pitfalls of which he is writing are those of the 21st century just as much as the one before it.

Runs until 5 March 2016 | Image: Scott Rylander

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