I Hear America Singing

Illustration by PaprikaPhoto: Joan Marcus

Musical-theater fans have a penchant for rubbernecking after a horrible wreck, but the 2003 pilgrimages to see Bounce in Chicago and Washington, D.C., were notably free of ill will. Word of mouth on Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s seven-years-in-the-making musical, a boisterous picaresque about two brothers flimflamming their way from the Yukon to Boca Raton at the turn of the twentieth century, was tepid at best. A New York transfer seemed unlikely. Yet those 2003 audiences weren’t looking to gawk or scoff. It was more like traveling to see a beloved aging relative just in case … you know … what if this is our last chance?

Well, that relative may have a new spring in his step, but he’s still not the picture of health. After five more years, Bounce has become Road Show, and gained a drastically streamlined aesthetic and a darkened tone. Director Hal Prince has been replaced by the unsentimental John Doyle, whose actor-musician revival of Sweeney Todd was revelatory, throwing its best aspects into relief. This time, though, Doyle’s austerity jostles uneasily against Sondheim’s boisterous melodies. The top-hat-and-hair-shirt look is no more graceful than it sounds.

As before, the predominant musical idiom is the strain of jouncy, vaguely ironic Americana that Sondheim deployed in Assassins. Both iterations begin in the afterworld with the Mizner brothers: the charismatic ne’er-do-well Wilson (Michael Cerveris) and the resentful plugger Addison (Alexander Gemignani). But while the title song to Bounce commemorated their can-do spirit—“We’ve bucked a few trends / And with style”—the new lyric, set to much the same melody, eulogizes Addison with a dismissive “What a waste.”

After an initial flush of success in the Alaska gold rush, Wilson moves on to the more traditional form of gold-digging—marrying a rich widow—and blows her money on prizefighters and producing Broadway plays. The hapless Addison, meanwhile, finally finds success as an architect of luxe resort homes. The brothers cross paths again in Florida, where Wilson embroils Addison and his lover, Hollis Bessemer (a bland Claybourne Elder), in a scheme to convert Boca Raton into “the Venice of the Atlantic.”

Essentially, the brothers are reduced to playing the angel and devil on America’s shoulders, and Cerveris in particular has trouble pulling it off. As he showed in revivals of Sweeney Todd and Assassins, Cerveris can access Sondheim’s darker shadings with a chilling brio. But rakish charm is outside his comfort zone, and a lengthy montage devoted to “Good Time Willie” and his various Jazz Age shenanigans falls flat. Only when the Boca Raton scheme reduces Wilson to sweaty desperation are Cerveris’s natural strengths highlighted. Gemignani is a far more naturalistic performer, and while Addison’s late change of heart goes unexplored, he gives a touching, beautifully sung performance as a decent man who, again and again, lets his guard down just enough to admit trouble.

The actors don’t serve as their own orchestra this time, and it’s a good thing. Audiences deserve to be introduced to Sondheim’s score—which includes a ballad for the ages called “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened”—in its fully orchestrated splendor. Still, Doyle’s approach remains aggressively presentational. The ensemble work is surprisingly uneven, and his stage conceits—money repeatedly tossed all over the stage, actors screwing in footlight bulbs and then removing them—saps Weidman’s snappy script of the globe-hopping effervescence it once had.

In fact, the disconnect between the original goal (vaudevillian romp) and the end result (ascetic scold) may not be lost on the creators. Wrapping up a musical that has gone through four titles, three directors, and one lawsuit with the line “Sooner or later we’re bound to get it right” is about as chipper a white flag as has ever been waved onstage. Stephen Sondheim has bucked so many trends with so much style and insight and outright genius that he’s earned the right to get it wrong. What a waste? Not really. But a shame. –E.G.

“Action talks and bullshit walks,” junk-shop owner Don Dubrow (Cedric the Entertainer) tells his gofer Bob (Haley Joel Osment) early in the new revival of David Mamet’s 1975 American Buffalo, and there’s a whole lot of bullshit walking on the stage of Robert Falls’s production. (Or was walking; as we went to press, the show’s producers announced that if ticket sales didn’t improve, the show would close on November 23.) Most of it’s coming from Teach, the hood who insinuates himself into Don and Bob’s half-baked plan to rip off a collector of rare coins—a plan that, it’s no spoiler to say, doesn’t really come off as they hoped, mostly because the three can’t stop yakking. Teach is an angry, torqued-up motormouth, and the difficult role is tripping up even the fast-moving tongue of John Leguizamo; at the performance I saw, the wiry chatterbox who called his first one-man-show Mambo Mouth just couldn’t keep pace with Mamet’s script. Leguizamo spends some time feinting and jabbing like a boxer, but dramatically, he’s a featherweight; there’s no danger to his performance, just antics. I wish I could’ve seen Robert Duvall, who must’ve been terrifying as Teach on Broadway in 1977.

Osment, the onetime star of The Sixth Sense, barely registers, but at least his wide-open face lends some pathos to Bob’s puppy-dog attempts to please his mentor. Cedric the Entertainer, on the other hand, brings a laconic authority to Don, making him something like a great bit player from The Wire, brought to life onstage to endure the slings and arrows of a fresh economic downturn and John Leguizamo. Despite Santo Loquasto’s incongruously majestic junk-shop set and an energetic second act, this is a mostly forgettable production of a play that’s a less scathing critique of capitalism than you might recall. Days later, all that sticks is the show’s cheeky first words: As the lights go down, a piped-in voice announces, “The cast, in accordance with Mr. Mamet, ask that you please turn off your fucking cell phones.” –D.K.

Road Show
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by John Weidman.
The Public Theater.

American Buffalo
By David Mamet.
Belasco Theatre.

I Hear America Singing