The journey is the destination in the Max Theatre as Road Show gets underway for the backend of the 2015/2016 season at Signature Theatre. With all of the style, flare, and spark of an old-world adventure tale, this lesser recognized Sondheim treasure hits the open stage with Director Gary Griffin and Musical Director Jon Kalbfleisch at the wheel. Being the third collaborative effort of Music and Lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Book Writer John Weidman, Signature Theatre is crossing new frontiers with this rarely produced musical, making them true pioneers as they explore uncharted Sondheim territory hoping to turn up riches on their expedition. Striking gold in the talent department, aesthetic design efforts, and the overall lively music of the performance, it is safe to say this rare run is worth a gander just to whet the whistle of curiosity inside any musical theatre fan.
While John Weidman’s story is something of a muddle, a curious blend of love and relationships that runs amuck all over the map, every hallmark making it a true Sondheim musical rings true in virtually every instance of music throughout the production. Musical Director Jon Kalbfleisch sets a steady course for the ensemble, traversing them through the more complexly layered harmonies of the bigger group numbers like “You” and the “New York Sequence.” The recurring recitatives are jumbled into the mix but Kalbfleisch untangles them neatly, giving those spoken-sung moments a sense of belonging with the rest of the score.
Director Gary Griffin takes musical opportunities to craft little moments of deep emotional exploration among the characters, as Weidman’s book fails to be structured in such a way as to allow these more fulfilling and dynamic developments. Griffin drives a lively pace behind the journey, keeping the show on the road, as it were, and keeping the audience invested in the tale of Addison and Wilson— better known as Addi and Willy— as they trek about the map through their timelines, winding and wending in and out of each other’s lives. While the story is somewhat unsatisfying on the whole, and none of Sondheim’s tunes are so striking that one can leave humming or whistling them, the combined efforts of Griffin and Kalbfleisch along with the impressively talented ensemble make for an uplifting and surprisingly entertaining evening at the theatre.
The fully charged and vocally engaged ensemble (featuring Erin Driscoll, Stefan Alexander Kempski, Jason J. Labrador, Jake Mahler, and Angela Miller) adds a vibrant spark to numbers like “Addison’s Trip.” This rolling-routine of traveling through all of Addi’s travels is punctuated with simple costume accoutrements crafted by Costume Designer Ivania Stack. Fitting the era of the forward moving Yukon Gold Rush and development of coastal Florida into her vision, Stack fabricates a tastefully elegant couture that keeps the characters in period while giving them a sense of timelessness, allowing the events and the overall show message of “following the road of your dreams” to transcend into modern relevance.
Scenic Designer Scott Davis sets the mood with rustic charm early on, lathering the stage with a bubbly wax of nostalgia laid right into the antique world map painted upright on the crated wooden backboard. Davis follows this old-world saloon approach to the spiral staircases and overhanging fences that capture the severely thrusted stage space with a hydraulics-lifted platform rising and falling as a bed when needed. Accompanied by the flashy illumination of Lighting Designer Joel Shier, Davis hones in on the notion of an old traveling stage show caught halfway between Vaudeville and a ramshackle caravan complete with a side show magician. The feel of the atmosphere resonates with dated authenticity because of these two designers, but in a presentational manner so that the audience is keenly aware of looking back on a time gone by rather than being submerged into it.
Jaunty, jolly roll along tunes of merry gaiety plink persistently from the onstage upright rehearsal piano, compliments of Jacob Kidder. Keeping Kidder on the stage in constant clear view of the audience is a bold but rewarding choice for this musical as it frames the show through the lens of recollection. By seeing Kidder actively playing along— particularly as the pre-show entertainment and once when he meta-transcends the third wall of the play’s interactions— the audience is more readily primed to accept the notion that they are watching a tale of yesteryore, and can more easily follow the characters backward through their journey.
Dan Manning, the only performer outside of the two Mizner sons to portray a singular character, delivers a rich robust sound as Papa Mizner. Having just one solo number, “It’s in Your Hands Now”, Manning makes the most of this sagely song and delivers stirring wisdom to Addi and Willy with his solid sustains and strong emotional bond to the lyrics. Played opposite to Sherri L. Edelen, who in addition three other roles takes on Mama Mizner, Manning delivers a heartfelt sprinkling of cameo appearances for the remainder of the show Edelen, who possesses matronly love of the purest variety, is a resplendent vocal addition to the cast. “Isn’t He Something,” is a memorable and touching solo performed by Edelen, who explores the bounds of a mother’s love for her son in all of its unconditional glory.
Resident character man Bobby Smith turns his head up a handful of times throughout the performance as this caricature and that stereotype, all of which find their roots in his humorous portrayals. The most notable is perhaps the wheeling-dealing slick-talking prospector who kicks off the company number, “Gold!” though there are a great many smaller but impeccably nuanced characters featured in “Addison’s Trip” that make Smith’s performance worth noting.
Appearing at first as a heavyweight title fighter in “New York Sequence”, Matthew Schleigh expresses his talented vocal ability to the audience early on. Schleigh’s main character identity is found on a train to Florida as Hollis, and the carefully constructed connection that develops between his character and Addi becomes a pivotal turning point in the story; a relationship that deserved to be further fleshed out by Weidman and Sondheim in the overall development of this show. Schleigh presents the All-American convivial boy with big artist dreams and an eager enthusiasm to pursue those fantasies in his physicality as well as his voice. “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened”, which is one of the most evocative and tender moments in the production, is a sublime duet Schleigh shares with Addison (Josh Lamon) and the way they touch each other’s souls in this number warms the cockles of the heart divinely.
Lamon, as one half of the Mizner Brother duo, has a wide range of emotional expressions throughout the show It’s the emotional journey and arc of growth that Lamon highlights in his performance that makes the audience fall in love with the Addi character. Though “Get Out” has a bit more gravel-voiced shouting than singing, it is an evocative piece bursting with raw feeling and really rounds out the finale of the character’s experience. Running the emotional gamut against Wilson (Noah Racey), whose character seems shockingly limited by comparison, Lamon carries the audience on his adventure of a lifetime, including us every bumpy step of the way.
Racey and Lamon are the best worst pair on stage as brothers. With the script written to accentuate the tensions of brotherly love and discord, this pair of performers fits the bill without exception. Racey, possessed of a charming smarm and casually arrogant attitude, plunders the depths of insincerity with great consistency throughout the performance. His duets shared with Lamon, like “Brotherly Love” and “Go”— a counterpoint solo layered overtop of Lamon’s “Get Out”— generate a true sense of fraternal bonding, through good times and bad. Their trio, “Addison’s City”, accompanied by Schleigh’s starry-eyed Hollis, is a rare moment of glistening happiness seeping into Sondheim’s more upbeat harmonies.
With an impressive array of talent on the stage, not only in the performances but in the little details that make the magic of theatre truly spectacular (look for all the little mansions that descend from above during “Land Boom!”), Signature Theatre is adventuring for success and finding it with this off-the-path Sondheim musical.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission