Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Directed by Rick Rea
Wasatch Theatre Company (Regional Premiere) 4 January 2014
If you want to complete your collection of Stephen Sondheim musicals, you definitely want to see this production. If SS is not the driving force behind your theater attendance, you might still want to see it. It has its points.
My guess is that when Fiorello hit Broadway in 1959, people knew who Fiorello LaGuardia was. When Gypsy opened that same year (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, by coincidence) anybody attending the premiere knew who Gypsy Rose Lee was.
In Fiorello, New Yorkers (and who else attended Broadway shows in 1959?) were treated to a tuneful account of their recent mayor’s life. In Gypsy, we watched with awed horror the stage mother to end all stage mothers, having, all of us, some fleeting experience with these driven parents, whether at Little League or the elementary school Christmas play.
The same can not be said of Addison and Wilson Mizner, two obscure figures from American history of the early 20th century. Under those circumstances, Weidman and Sondheim seek to make the lives of these two minor players somehow interpretive of the American character. So we watch as they invent and re-invent, and re-invent themselves over their lifetimes, as all Americans do, don’t they?
To my mind, it doesn’t work, but in any case, if the images before us are to assume an iconic nature, management owes us a little more context in the program. At least we might reasonably expect to have the cast linked to roles. A list of tunes, perhaps?
The music is tuneful, and although it is difficult music, it was well-played by a small orchestra. In New York the band would have been in a pit. In the small space of the Studio Theatre at Rose Wagner, that would have been distracting, so they played from behind a partition, which led to some co-ordination problems with some of the ensemble numbers.
Tuneful, yes, but predictably Sondheim, where the clever lyrics, rhymed and re-rhymed, seem more important than content and context. “Where have I heard that?” one wonders. “Oh, yes, it was in Into the Woods. Or was it Sunday in the Park with George?” No wonder this show never made it on Broadway.
As to the performance, it was cleverly staged and sung, and acted with enthusiasm. It was most often quite appealing. There were also some less than stellar principal performances (which might improve as the run goes on) both on the acting and singing sides. Costumes were bright and evocative of the period.
Two criticisms, the first related to the story. The boys are huddled up in the same sleeping bag in Alaska when Addie is quite obviously sexually aroused by Willie. That Addie was homosexual we know, but where does this incident come from? Did Addie write in a memoir that his brother made him horny? I can’t imagine it. Did he tell someone who later wrote it down? We can accept the obligatory (these days) same-sex kiss between Addie and his lover Hollis later in the show, but this incident is just creepy.
The second criticism relates to the production: Addie is played by one actor (I think I know who it was, but in the absence of a cast list, I’m not going to take a chance). But the actor (ditto) playing his brother also takes other roles in the show, most notably when he shows up repeatedly to rain on Addie’s parade during his ‘round the world tour. Unless that was supposed to be an allusion to the (quite evident) sibling rivalry, it seemed unnecessary and really unfair to Wilson.
I like stories about re-inventing oneself, and heaven knows there are plenty of them in the theater. I’m not sure this one was significant enough.