Review – Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory

Friday 1 July 2011

Stephen Sondheim‘s last show (to date) has had more monikers than Puff Daddy.

This artistic enfant terrible was formerly known as Wise Guys, Gold and Bounce.

But no amount of aliases and donning of a false moustaches and dark glasses can prevent it from being recognised everywhere it goes by its giant coxcomb atop its head and the involuntary gobbling sounds, both of which announce “turkey” wherever it raises its head.

Which is now at the Menier Chocolate Factory where it gets its first airing on these shores under a musical witness protection scheme posing as Andrew’s favourite antiques TV programme Road Show.  Cue much moistness from The Stephen Sondheim Society and other liberal arts do-gooders with a touching faith in their hearts that deep down it isn’t really bad, just misunderstood.

The tale (book John Weidman) tells the story of the early 20th century fortune-seeking Mizner brothers, taking us from the Alaskan gold rush to Florida and all points not in between. It has been reworked, rewritten and apparently much improved since it’s initial outing in 1999. One shudders to think what that version must have been like.

We can be thankful for some things though. John Doyle who directed its first Road Show incarnation in America in 2008 has eschewed his signature actors-with-musical-instruments format, cut it to 95 minutes (actually 105 at this preview) without interval and opted to stage it in the traverse.

Ah, the traverse. How does that appear in our list of positives? From front row seats Phil found this tougher than being at Wimbledon. His neck was getting a better workout than Linda Blair’s. Andrew, however, saw it as an opportunity to survey the largely expressionless audience, many fanning themselves in the sweltering heat, on the opposite side of the auditorium during the duller stretches.

This is a major production of a very minor Sondheim. Doyle does his best to inject pep into the proceedings, the hardworking cast, sweating profusely, includes Olivier Award winners Michael Jibson and David Badella, as the brothers Addison and Wilson respectively. Furniture, including chairs, a bed and an antique globe drinks trolley are trundled up and down the landing strip stage relentlessly. Are the cast multi-tasking by simultaneously performing an audition for Pickfords?

Like a Voyages Jules Verne world tour we enjoy brief stays in Hawaii, India and China and marvel at the wonders of cultural stereotyping. Book the Duke of Edinburgh for a gala performance now! Dollar bills are strew around with abandon, often landing on the audience. Did a cast member think Phil was in danger of nodding off when he was hit in the face by a wad of notes? The theatre’s Gestetner can’t have been the only thing overheating in the Menier.

Jon Robyns makes an impression as Hollis Bessemer but the best moment for Phil was Gillian Bevan as Mama Mizner affectingly delivering “Isn’t He Something!” immediately before snuffing it. The best tune is probably “You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” but along with the episodic storyline which fails to offer any real dramatic tension the show’s main problem is its harsh, sardonic tone whose revulsion at American greed leaves no room for any charm at all until the very last deathbed scene by which time everyone has snuffed it.

Andrew (who had steadfastly refused to “research” the piece beforehand) perked up somewhat when it turned out that these brothers were the architects of the Palm Beach millionaire’s haven Boca Raton which for some reason had lodged itself in his brain as the location of one of Lord Sugar’s homes. Sure enough, here it is. Ernie Wise had a holiday home there too. So does Greg Norman. Oooh, and while we’re on this website, look, here’s Madonna’s London house. Oooh! We can see Sarah Palin’s house from our houses! Hours of fun. Hours of fun.



16 Responses to “Review – Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory”

  1. Dave Says:

    Well, rarely for me, I strongly disagree with you here. Perfect story telling I thought, fabulous cast, and for me, not a moment of it dragged – which is rare in theatre!

  2. igb Says:

    Gestetner? How old are you? Do you remember Banda copiers as well? That sweet smell of solvent?

  3. MJ Says:

    I thought it was a brilliant production of a layered and brave musical. Your review does you a diservice.

  4. Dean Porter Says:

    Yet again I totally disagree with you. What has happened? We used to be on the same wavelength. I barely know you anymore. Sob.
    ps Really enjoyed it, pacey and lots of fun. Yes it tailed off a bit towards the end, but I’d happily see it again. Gold! Gold!

  5. Glen Says:

    Sorry guys – disagree with you on this one! Thought the show one of the best things the Menier have staged and far from being a ‘minor Sondheim’ Road Show is one of his best works -moving, funny and packs a real punch.
    Oh well, it would be a dull world if we all agreed 🙂

  6. Ali67 Says:

    Jibson hasn’t won an Olivier?

    I thought it was a bit dull… But given as good a production as it will ever get.. Or deserves to get. Jibson and Gilian Bevan are fabulous… But I’m not a fan of Badella.. And they looked and felt nothing like brothers.

  7. mike Says:

    Loved this show, a really entertaining night out, the Menier is back on form after a dull first half of the year. Would have to agree though that Bedella & Jibson do not make believable brothers.

  8. paul ford Says:

    i played the piano for first the 476 readings of Wiseguys between 1995 and the Sam Mendez mounting in 1999 (which i did not play)…then i recorded many demos at Steve’s house and played several readings in the Hal Prince office and at the Public Theatre before John Doyle took over……any questions?

    • Paul Says:

      Yes, Was the first version any good. I’ve heard a recording of Sam’s Wise Guys and it sounds funny and interesting. I wonder if the artistic nervousness was at play in constantly rearranging it. Perhaps it just wasn’t strange or ambitious enough.

      • Paul Ford Says:

        the first version had an opening number “Wiseguys” with many parts. it sounded exactly like “You Couldn’t Please Me More” from Cabaret so paul gemignani privately pointed it out and steve changed a couple of notes…..then there was a 2nd number after that called “Benecia” which was a series of gentle waltzes where a photographer was doing a group photo of the Mizner family over the course of a decade. each time the family posed for the photo, Addison and Wilson would be late. the mother would scream for them and the two would scramble onstage fighting-first as kids, then teenagers, then as young men……Addison was the late Patrick Quinn and Wilson was Victor Garber… the play continued there was an extended sequence in Alaska where the boys plot to cheat everyone out of their money by staging a fake bear/man wrestling match…..Addison was supposed to dress up in a bear suit, but a ‘real’ bear wanders into the camp and chaos ensues….they are railroaded out of town…..then the “I’m On My Way” sequence was very very long with the whole company singing as hilariously politically incorrect local natives….(i don’t think this song actually was in the first reading)…..there was no more music that day…..the first act ended with Addison blocking Wilson from seeing his mother who he said was “sleeping” in the next room…..actually she’s dead but Addison withholds this information, which causes the big rift in their relationship…..and there were wild slapstick scenes such as Addison shooting bullets into a new piece of furniture to ‘antique’ it, and the Boca Raton sequence had various Hollywood stars such as Mae West showing up to endorse the place……only 2 songs the first reading, and it was done way west on 42nd St. in a dumpy studio…..Jerry Zaks’ longtime associate director, Lori Steinberg helmed it…….it was one of many, many, many readings, workshops, recording sessions, presentations over 10 years
        on that particular day, Steve told me that he had loved the biographies as early as the ’50’s but Bob Hope optioned them for a movie which was never made……and it was supposed to be a wild farce like the Hope/Crosby “Road” pictures…….by the time Sam Mendez workshopped it all of the spirit and zaniness was gone
        any more questions?

  9. Ali67 Says:

    Er….. No.

  10. Rick Light Says:

    I’m filing this one under ‘à chacun son goût’, you really went to see this with an open mind. And called it very wrong.

  11. The Dazzler Says:

    Just saw Road Show last night and was more than enjoyable.Special mention must go to Michael Jibson who was magnificent in the role of Addison. Gillian Bevan did more than justice to Isn’t He Something. Time for someone to give Jibson that big break that he so richly deserves

  12. Stevie Says:

    With trepidation I joined a full Menier house last night to see a musical that was not expected to be my cup of Earl Grey. However, I left pleasantly surprised that ‘Money Bros.’ [aka: Wise Boys, Gold, Bounce, Road Show] went down well with both the capacity audience and me; likely more polished since its June previews. Here lies a problem facing all productions that are financially prohibited from tweaking shows to perfection before publication. As the Whingers state, the runway induced a feeling of ‘Railway Children’, Centre Court Wombledon and travel sickness; ..well it was a Road Show. Surely it could have been more traditionally staged as an ensemble piece within the Menier space?

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