Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Brothers Up In Arms
With no less than three former incarnations as Wise Guys, Gold and Bounce, it's based on the true story of American Addison Mizner and his brother Wilson, entrepreneurs or crooks, dependent on your point of view, in the first half of the 20th century.
It's a "can't live with him, can't live without him" tale with the indissoluble ties and irreparable rifts of the two men, artist and conman, at the centre of the story, used as a reflection of American aspiration.
Urged on by their dying politician father, "It's In Your Hands" and their ambitious mother, the two men take to the road to make their fortunes. Suffering the vicissitudes of won and lost riches as gold prospectors, in gambling dens and various ill-fated business ventures, they finally make their mark with over hyped Florida real estate - before the property bubble bursts.
TLT and sidekick are "we know what we like" audience members rather than musical theatre experts. And drawing on their previous theatregoing, this musical struck them as having some of the same assets and liabilities as Jerry Herman's Mack and Mabel. The same awkward uneasy see-saw between two protagonists with no consistent focus. A dark true tale but at the same time a shoo-in archetypal story in conflict, rather than integrated, with the accurate history.
Nevertheless there's a lot to like in the Union production. Howard Jenkins takes on the role of architect Addison, the fall guy compared to the opportunist rogue Wilson, played with relish by André Refig, variously a gambler, prize fight promoter, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter.
Jenkins as Addison, who finally finds success as an architect of kitsch Spanish-style mansions for the wealthy, leads the audience through the story, even if he is more youthfully slimline than at least one line of the lyrics suggests. Steve Watts is suitably authoritative both as the older Addison and the Mizner brothers' father. Meanwhile Cathryn Sherman makes the most of the role of spikey Mama Mizner and Joshua LeClair brings an emotional power to the role of love interest Hollis.
The problems, like Mack and Mabel, seem to be mostly with the book. Maybe the key lies with the original conception. According to internet sources, Sondheim first came across the story of the Mizners in the 1950s in the New Yorker magazine, but found the rights to their biography already snapped up by Broadway producer David Merrick. Merrick had Irving Berlin, who had known Addison, on board to write the songs when it was mooted as a possible vehicle for comedian Bob Hope.
It came to naught and Sondheim stepped in again in the 1990s intending to use the template of the popular wisecracking "Road" movies with Hope and crooner Bing Crosby. A kind of double act Rake's Progress, scenes from lives and eras: the gold rush, to India and then Hawaii, Guatamala, New York and finally Boca Raton, Florida.
If the Road movie framework had remained as more of an ironic commentary, maybe it would have given Road Show a steelier structure and consistency of tone rather than leaving the bare bones linear story of the two men. As it is, designer Nik Corrall introduces a tarnished gilt mirror or picture frame in the background on the ragged Union stage, which along with suitcases and a typewriter, gives a desolate riches to rags "Citizen Kane" feel to the production.
Overall, TLT and her own road companion enjoyed the show, even if at times the choreography felt a little over egged and the story sometimes like a house with ad hoc extensions.
But it was a pleasure to hear unmiked singing in the intimate venue and additionally individual cameos such as Damian Robinson's boxer ensured an engrossing 105 minutes without interval. So it's an amber light for an uneven but enjoyable show.