In Assassins, Stephen Sondheim put an ironic spin on traditional American musical forms ("Hail to the Chief", the cakewalk) to suggest that the crazies who take pot-shots at Presidents are the product of a philosophy that proclaims, "In the USA/ You can work your way/ To the head of the line". In Road Show the composer similarly deploys the razzmattazz of vaudeville to highlight how, at the heart of the Land of Opportunity, lurks a venal, get-rich-quick opportunism.
Road Show is here receiving its European premiere in a slimmed-down, radically revised version, brilliantly staged by John Doyle. It follows the picaresque fortunes of two brothers, based on Addison and Wilson Mizner, respectively an architect responsible for the boom development of Palm Beach, Florida, and an attractive chancer whose scams dogged, corrupted and ruined his brother. At the start, their stern frock-coated father hails the new century and enjoins his sons to "make of it what you will but make me proud". An early episode, though, in the Klondike gold rush establishes the pattern: Addison left hacking the rock, while Wilson blows their claim on a gambling saloon.
Michael Jibson, with his careworn baby face and subtle vocal artistry, superbly conveys Addison's love-hate emotional dependency on his brother. They're like a vaudeville double-act in which only David Bedella's dazzling Wilson, all dark good looks and amoral pearly grin, gets to tap-dance in spangly shoes through multiple ruses (fight promotion, movie-writing etc), all presented like a spoof showbiz spectacular. The recurring visual motifs are wads of greenbacks flung into the air and a death-bed whirled around like a stage-within-a-stage. The latter eventually becomes the site for a touching gay love song, "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" between Addison and a handsome poor little rich kid (a spot-on Jon Robyns) who will eventually be horrified by Wilson's cocaine-fuelled megalomania.
With the audience seated on either side of the stage, the sibling rivalry is wittily italicised. With the black-garbed tribunal-like chorus erupting into everything from Hawaiian dancers to pom-pom-waving real eastate fraud dupes, the production has terrific drive, bite and buoyancy. Road Show has had a long and troubled gestation (popping up in the US in various guises since 1999). Its European baptism in new, improved form at the Menier offers cause for ample festivity round the font.
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