The Arthropologist

A rollercoaster of a Road Show — with music: Tackling this Sondheim isn't for the timid

A rollercoaster of a Road Show play: Tackling a new Sondheim

Nancy Rare Sondheim Stages Repertory Theatre Road Show the cast
The cast of Stages Repertory Theatre in Road Show Photo by © Bruce Bennett
Nancy Rare Sondheim May 2013 Michael McClure, Tom Frey and L.Jay Meyer of Stages Repertory Theatre
Michael McClure, Tom Frey and L. Jay Meyer of Stages Repertory Theatre Photo by © Bruce Bennett
Nancy Rare Sondheim  L. Jay Meyer as Addison and Tom Frey as Wilson Mizner in Stages Repertory Theatre's production of Road Show
L. Jay Meyer  and Tom Frey in Stages Repertory Theatre's production of Road Show Photo by © Bruce Bennett
Bridget Beirne and Tom Frey in Road Show at Stages Repertory Theatre dancing June 2013
Bridget Beirne and Tom Frey in Road Show at Stages Repertory Theatre Photo by © Bruce Bennett
Bridget Beirne and Tom Frey in Road Show at Stages Repertory Theatre June 2013
A scene from Road Show at Stages Repertory Theatre with Tom Freyand Bridget Beirne Photo by © Bruce Bennett
Nancy Rare Sondheim Stages Repertory Theatre Road Show the cast
Nancy Rare Sondheim May 2013 Michael McClure, Tom Frey and L.Jay Meyer of Stages Repertory Theatre
Nancy Rare Sondheim  L. Jay Meyer as Addison and Tom Frey as Wilson Mizner in Stages Repertory Theatre's production of Road Show
Bridget Beirne and Tom Frey in Road Show at Stages Repertory Theatre dancing June 2013
Bridget Beirne and Tom Frey in Road Show at Stages Repertory Theatre June 2013

Whenever I feel a little low in the theater enthusiasm department, I know it's time for a one on one with Kenn McLaughlin, the wild-eyed artistic director of Stages Repertory Theatre. We've had several chats over the years, on Panto, on my reactions to Mr. Marmalade, on Will Eno and on his Director's Lab to name a few.

I always leave these conversations having learned something new about live theater, and more importantly, that it's a worthwhile endeavor to tell the tale of how anything gets on stage, at Stages and elsewhere.

Mr. Big Chance

Honestly, McLaughlin could convince me that doing a play with elephants is a great idea, he's that persuasive. So maybe elephants are not exactly a part of Road Show, the little known Sondheim musical that closes Stages' season (running through June 30), but taking on this much storied gem was not without risks.

Road Show has been on a long road itself, from its 1999 workshop version called Wise Guys, followed by its 2003 Chicago premiere as Bounce. It's a play with a past.

 It's a rollercoaster of a play with a relentless pace, not unlike a real road trip, with a spirit of recklessness.  

Road Show chronicles a couple of drifter bros who set out to make a fortune and lose it a few times over. The true story of the Addison and Wilson Mizner is far from our consciousness. If you are a boomer like me, these are our grandparents' stories.

They even begin their search for fortune in the Yukon, Alaska, the very place that my husband's grandfather made his livelihood. Then the brothers discover the next frontier, Florida! Addison's Boca Raton homes are still considered treasures.

But do people still connect with this part of our American story? Also, this is the first regional theater production of Road Show. How's that for thinking big?

All of these concerns would have kept me up at night, which is probably why I'm not running a theater company. But not for Can-Do Kenn.

"To me it wasn't a risk," McLaughlin insists. "I loved the show and felt very strongly that it had something to say for Houston audiences, and that pretty much covered the bases for me.

"Add in the fact that it is a 'new' Sondheim, and I really felt the show fit squarely within the kind of thing that Stages is best respected for, compelling, fresh and contemporary work."

It's just the kind of underdog piece that gets him fired up. And if you haven't seen McLaughlin fired up, well, too bad for you. The man oozes love for live theater. When I attend his pre-show pep rallies, I leaving thinking, "Oh, right, that's why I'm here."

Dos Road

Road Show ended up on McLaughlin's desk via artistic associate Mitchell Greco, who directed the uber popular Life Could be a Dream earlier this season. "It's an intelligent musical with something to say about who we are," McLaughlin says. "It had some bite to it."

As one of four brothers, a story about the Mizner brothers offered another way in for McLaughlin.

 If you haven't seen McLaughlin fired up, well, too bad for you. The man oozes love for live theater.  

I took my seat at Road Show with a modicum of apprehension, after all, it was a Sondheim, and I couldn't hum a single tune yet. The lights came on, a chorus of Sondheim sounds flooded the stage, and all I could do was strap myself in and hold on. It's a rollercoaster of a play with a relentless pace, not unlike a real road trip, with a spirit of recklessness. It just starts its engine and goes, without a single "send in the clowns" moment.

The Mizner bros were a busy duo, dabbling in so many things, that it's no wonder that their lives became the stuff of theater. They lived epic lives and deserve a Sondheim musical.

"I'm so glad you used the word 'rollercoaster' because the sense of being out of control is part of the driving metaphor," McLaughlin says. "The play felt like it is was going a 100 miles per hour. The story touches on that romantic notion of the frontier, the spirit of invention and the need to find unclaimed territory."

"Are you a Sondheim freak?" I ask McLaughlin.

"He's the greatest writer for theater alive in terms of the theatrical sophistication he brings to the table," he shoots back. "He gets inside how characters think and with magnetic music." 

Actually, this is Stages' first Sondheim. "I was waiting for the right play at the right moment to do it," McLaughlin says.

Although this is not the largest production Stages has put on, it feels that way. Grey Gardens and the Pantos were larger overall.

"It's the most fully articulated," McLaughlin says. "The investment in design is more thorough."

Then there's the talent issue. "Houston has talent coming out of the woodwork, but I also had the budget to look outside of the city if I needed to," McLaughlin says.

And indeed he did, when the New York City based actor Tom Frey joined the cast. Frey also performed in 2 Pianos 4 Hands earlier this season. 

"I had all the resources I needed to pull this show off," McLaughlin says. "I feel good about the show. I did all that I wanted to do."

The show has garnered some great national attention, but that wasn't the reason McLaughlin mounting it.

"I wanted to do the show because it spoke to me deeply, and that is the most compelling reason for me always," he says. "I'm drawn to plays that speak to our responsibility to each other as a community — what do we owe each other? What is the social contract and why are we so darn determined to mess it up every single day?

"Road Show asks those questions with great music. That's what turned me on to the play first and foremost."

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