Dec 15, 2008
Lowered expectations can be a boon, clearly. Partly thanks to this new site, and also because I'm a fan, I've read every review that's been written of Road Show, Sondheim's new chamber musical at the Public, and I was prepared for the worst. What I saw instead was an arty, rueful, resourceful little musical of hearteningly sturdy craftmanship and, I almost hesitate to add, an unmistakeably valedictory tone that was moving in itself. I can't argue with my fellow critics on substance; Road Show is inarguably a bit hollow and lachrymose, but it's never less than smart and involving, and I was surprised how often I smiled or laughed more or less exactly as I think Weidman and Sondheim intended--with a world-weary, slightly self-aware catch in the throat.
Over the years I've gone from Sondheim skeptic to smitten fan, and today I hover uneasily somewhere between the two; I'm no longer convinced, as I once was, that time alone will be enough to turn his thornier shows into Rodgers & Hammerstein-style standards, though I cherish nearly every one of his scores the way I cherish the theater scores of Janacek, Ravel, Weill (I exclude Passion, the only show of his that put me to sleep). I was left cold, for instance, by the recent Sunday revival, and not because of the production; I think that show has proven to be what its critics said it was all along: a brilliant but lopsided conceit with a constrained, self-involved view of art and human connection.
On the other hand, one thing that moved me most about Road Show was seeing Orville Mendoza among the ensemble; years ago, he was among one of L.A.'s most essential Sondheim interpreters, etching an indelible Sweeney Todd in East West Players' 99-seat production, and later a definitive Kayama in EWP's Pacific Overtures. East West was among a cadre of scrappy L.A. theaters who kept my Sondheim faith alive in the 1990s and beyond by presenting his shows in intimate settings where every crammmed-in word counted (a revelation later echoed here).
And this may be the thing I think I like most about Road Show: its gritty modesty, its clear embrace of the smaller canvas and whites-of-their-eyes intimacy. I wish I could say there's a commensurate increase in itensity and impact to compensate for Road Show's smaller scope, but that's not quite the case; I'm not sure there's that much there there. Still, director John Doyle's dry-eyed, free-ranging presentational boldness seems exactly right in this pointedly Off-Broadway context, and it manages to show this brittle material in its best possible light.
Perhaps paradoxically, something about Doyle's production--the travelling trunks, the echoes of vaudeville, the hard-sell, win-or-lose themes--put me in mind of possibly the greatest musical ever, which not coincidentally has lyrics by Sondheim and recently announced a new Broadway closing date, the towering Gypsy. As rough bookends to a career, an artist could do a lot worse.
I will only add, as someone who has seen a lot more than his share of bad theater, that if all the so-called failures I sat through were as good as Road Show, I'd be a much happier man. Faint praise, perhaps, but not meant to damn.
UPDATE: Below, Orville sits at Sondheim's piano (isn't Facebook great?).
Posted by Rob Weinert-Kendt at 11:46 AM