Review: Road Show – Menier Chocolate Factory ****

With Sunday in the Park With George and A Little Night Music transferring from the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark to the West End and then to Broadway, the Menier has established an enviable association with Sondheim’s musicals, and this pedigree is evident in their latest offering, Road Show, which features all the hallmarks we have come to expect from the Southwark venue.

All musicals develop over time, although perhaps none as radically and publicly as Road Show, which has undergone several name changes and score revisions.  This latest incarnation is merely another step in Road Show’s journey, neither a final version, nor a definitive one. Where, with lesser musicals this might result in a loose, woolly reading, this is a focussed and precise rendition, almost forensic in its realisation, one which wholeheartedly celebrates its intelligence albeit, perhaps, at the expense of its soul.

Following the life stories of the Mizner brothers, Road Show is an epic story. Spanning thirty years, from the beginning of the 20th Century, to the 1930’s, as much as anything it charts the development of America during that period.  Doyle’s production, with a traverse setting and intelligent use of two raised platforms at either end, creates an unusual sense of distance, as the ensemble, and audience, observe events unfolding, in an ever revolving orgy of capitalism.  Matthew Wright’s somber costumes and Jane Cox’s rich lighting superbly underline the sobriety of the period, with occasional delightful flashes of colour and brilliance to heighten the superficiality of the Mizner excesses.

Michael Jibson as Addison Mizner, is simply heavenly.  He is that rare performer who can render Sondheim’s most dense music accessible, and here, he displays extraordinary range in a restrained, bravura performance.  More ostentatious, but equally accomplished, David Bedella wheels, deals, and tap dances his way through the story, perfectly capturing Wilson Mizner’s licentious energy.  As Hollis, Addison’s lover, Jon Robyns turns in an elegant performance, vocally rich and subtle.  His duet with Jibson, The Best Thing That Ever Happened, is in respectful hands here, and is among the most touching duets that Sondheim has ever penned.

this is a polished, flawless production, a stylish addition to Sondheim’s cannon

Musically, Road Show, is perhaps less cohesive than one would expect from Sondheim. Gillian Bevan’s sublime Isn’t He Something, with its lush melodic line is rooted more in the Golden Age tradition of musical theatre and seems at odds with the more musically intriguing You and Addison’s City, where we are on more familiar Sondheim territory.  Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations are deceptively beautiful and, in Catherine Jayes’ hands as Musical Director, expertly performed.

For all the flair and considerable talent involved however, it lacks an emotional core for the audience to latch onto.  While John Weidman’s book condenses the sprawling plot into a cogent 95 minutes, it cannot quite engage us with the relationships contained within. Nonetheless, this is a polished, flawless production, a stylish addition to Sondheim’s cannon, and, now, in this revised form, more than a curio for Sondheim die-hards.

– MS

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 17th September 2011
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