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Posts Tagged ‘Wise Guys’

This latest (last?) Stephen Sondheim musical has had a tortuous journey since it was first workshopped by Sam Mendes in New York City in 1999. First produced in Washington and Chicago (where I first saw it) in 2003, it re-appeared Off-Broadway in 2008 but never made The Great White Way. It started as Wise Guys before it became Gold!, Bounce and eventually Road Show. It’s not even five years since it’s UK premiere at The Menier Chocolate Factory (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/road-show), but it’s good to see it again in this revival by Phil Willmott at the Union Theatre.

The show presents the story of the real life Mizner brothers. Younger brother Wilson was a serial entrepreneur / chancer / con-man and Addison a self-trained architect. Their adventures started with the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, moved to New York City in its hey-day and ended with ground-breaking property development in Florida. In between, Wilson gambles, runs a saloon, becomes a boxing manager, writes plays, sells Latin American furniture, becomes a hotelier and marries a very rich widow. Addison’s journey was less colourful! In truth, in the show their story isn’t anywhere near as exciting and doesn’t make as good source material as any other Sondheim show, but compared to mere mortals it ain’t half bad. The score has too few proper songs and a bit too much ensemble sung dialogue / story, with a lot of melodies that seem familiar from other Sondheim shows.

Phil Willmott’s production is very effective, probably more so that the Menier’s traverse staging. The big two-way mirror at the back works really well and full use is made of the space, making it seem bigger than usual. I particularly liked Thomas Michal Voss’ choreography and Richard Baker’s trio does full justice to the complex, difficult score. The casting of the brothers is crucial to the success of this show and this is its trump card. Howard Jenkins and Andre Refig, both recent RAM graduates with fine vocal and acting skills, are terrific, conveying the completely different personalities, yet totally believable as brothers. The other three leads and ensemble of ten are all very good, but they carry the show.

I wasn’t sure we’d ever see this flawed but fascinating show again and I worried it might be soon to return to it, but I’m very glad I did.

 

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I was lucky enough to be passing through Chicago (as one does) when the second incarnation of this show, then named Bounce (it’s first title was Wise Guys), was playing in 2003. It was OK, but seemed a bit slight for Sondheim – a light musical comedy about a con man. Well, this certainly isn’t that show!

From his deathbed, Addison & Wilson Mizner’s father encourages his sons Wilson and Addison to go off and make names for themselves and change the world, as you can only do in the US of A. The story of their attempts to fulfill his wishes start with the Alaska gold rush and ends with a property development in Florida, the idea of which comes from Addison’s new partner (in every sense of the word), rich boy  Hollis Bessemer. In between, the brother’s relationship moves between closeness and antagonism, with Wilson’s con man tendencies and Addison’s relationship with Hollis piling on the pressure.

It had little depth back in 2003 and one was left with a ‘what are you getting at?’ feeling. ‘This is Sondheim; it can’t be as simple as all that’. Following a number of re-writes and productions, and more significantly for me, the fact that it comes after the credit crunch, and we get a show that examines both the American dream and brotherly love. In many ways it resembles Assassins – both in terms of musical style and the fact that both are poking around in the American psyche. This new incarnation does have depth and is now very much a Sondheim show. Thank god he and John Weidman persisted for so long; many would have given up.

John Doyle’s traverse staging has extraordinary pace and intimacy. There’s no set as such, just props piled up at both ends to be brought on when required and a lot of fake money to be thrown around. The 8-piece band under Catherine Jayes play the score superbly. I do think it is musically a bit derivative, though – but of Sondheim himself; there were a number of occasions when I was thinking ‘ I’ve heard that before’.

Michael Jibson and David Badella as the brothers are both absolutely brilliant, with real chemistry between them. Jon Robyns is excellent as Hollis and both Glyn Kerslake and Gillian Bevan make much of the relatively small roles of mama and papa. The tightly knit ensemble of eight play all other characters and constitute a chorus that glides and flows with the story.

It zips along so quickly that I felt I’d not been able to take it all in, so when I got home I booked to go back!

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