Dec 15, 2008

Road's End

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 intensity 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.

Below, Orville sits at Sondheim's piano (isn't Facebook great?).


Anonymous said...

In the 80's and 90's Sondheim lit up my world. His approach certainly influenced the way I write and the way I appreciate musical theatre.

I too hover very uneasily between skeptic and smitten - Sunday in the Park has such an overly long first act and a bizarre misfit second act. Passion did beyond nothing for me.... it's hard to come face to face with art that once was so inspiring.

I'm glad to hear there's something to appreciate in Road Show.

Anonymous said...

Rob, I can't believe I'm just now reading your blog and your kind kind words! I only came across it after Google-ing myself (c'mon, we all do it - admit it!) in the wee hours of the morning...which I do often these days as a man of leisure waiting for the next gig to come along.

East West Players thrives and exists because of artist-champions like you who could look past the color of our skin and into the soul and spirit of what we were doing as artists, good or bad, and critique that on its own merit. When others didn't "get it," you "got it" completely. For that, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!

On a personal note, working on a new Sondheim show was totally unreal. I can't tell you how many times I sat in wonderment during rehearsals telling myself, "That's STEPHEN SONDHEIM giving me a note! How did I even get here?!?!" Borrowing from R&H: "Somewhere in my wicked, miserable past, I must have done something good."

From the bottom of my heart: Continue to ROCK, Rob!!!