ON THE RECORD: Sondheim's Bounce and Neva Small's Broadway

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16 May 2004

This week's column discusses Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Bounce, as well as a CD from actress Neva Small including some long lost show tunes.

BOUNCE [Nonesuch 79830]
Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along opened 20-odd years ago and expired, unloved, after two weeks. Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents's Anyone Can Whistle closed 40 years and a fortnight ago, having staggered through a quick nine performances. If you have listened to and appreciated either of these cast albums more than 12 times, I expect you've already decided to give Bounce a try.

If Bounce is to go down in the record books without a New York appearance, so be it. I would say that the score is prime Sondheim, except that for me virtually all Sondheim is prime Sondheim — even cases where the shows, themselves, don't work out. Bounce is full of songs and sequences that we will listen to again and again and again, until people who didn't see the show in Chicago or Washington — or in its preliminary version, Wise Guys, at the New York Theatre Workshop — will perhaps start asking, "But how could this fail?"

Bounce or Gold! or Wise Guys, call it what you will, was commissioned in 1993. The inaugural attraction at the Kennedy Center in 1971 had been Leonard Bernstein's specially commissioned Mass. How better to celebrate the 25th anniversary than with a new musical from Sondheim? Sondheim's interest in the material dates back to 1952, when the then-budding songwriter read Alva Johnston's New Yorker series about the brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner. The rights were snapped up by a couple of not-so-budding veterans named Berlin and Behrman, and that was as far as Sondheim went with the Mizners. Until 1993. But the colorful brothers — one an architect (among other things), the other a conman (among other things) — have proven stubborn candidates for musicalization.

(From where I sit, younger brother Wilson seems to be sabotaging the piece. The central characters of a musical needn't be lovable and cuddly; just look at Mister Todd with his razors. But we've got to, in some way, care about them. Addison, the architect, earns our interest and sympathy, but Wilson — as drawn thus far by Sondheim and Weidman — has been a tough nut to crack.)

I called Wise Guys the best score of the 1999-2000 season, even in its then-incomplete state. Bounce has a somewhat different song lineup; additions include a new title song to go with the new title, while deletions include the old title song and the ballad "A Little House for Mama" (which is happily appended to the Bounce CD as a bonus track). My strong admiration for the score remains. Sondheim is inventive, as always, and lyrically dexterous; in this case, though, he seems to have consciously embraced musical comedy (which has not been the case in his last four musicals, since Sunday in the Park with George). Thus, Bounce gives us a welcome sense of fun; this is, in places, the Sondheim of A Funny Thing, with deliriously bouncy vamps and touches of broad, non intellectual humor. (There's a gag about Michigan, too complex to quote but delicious.)

Sondheim propels the action with a series of extended musical scenes. As the action within the musical scene progresses, the main section comes back again and again — but with slightly altered meaning, as the context becomes skewed. Such as in "Addison's Trip" abroad, in the first act. "I'm on my way," he sings, as he goes to Hawaii. "I'm on my way," he sings, as he continues his journey. As he encounters business disaster after business disaster, it becomes "I'm in my way." This device is also used with "Opportunity," "Gold" and the soaring "You (Where Have You Been All My Life)." "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" is not the Best Thing [song] That Ever Sondheim has written, perhaps, but I place it (and "You") near the top of my list of his most singingly melodic work.

Richard Kind does an endearing job as Addison, the uncomfortable son who finds an unexpected career as a purveyor of questionable taste. (All those useless souvenirs and design ideas he picked up on his world tour become the cornerstone for the over-the-top millionaire mansions he builds in Palm Beach.) Addison is at once fussy, sympathetic and unhappily overshadowed by his ne'er-do-well brother; all of this comes through in Kind's performance.

(It seems relevant to add that Kind continually reminds me of Nathan Lane, who played the role in Wise Guys. Kind earned strong reviews in Bounce, and deserved them; but let me say that Lane — even in the formulative workshop — was giving one of the finest dramatic performances I've ever seen from him.)

Howard McGillin, as Wilson, also does well on the CD. Considerably better, let me add, than he did on stage. This is a weakness in the writing, I suppose; Wilson, as previously stated, seems ill-conceived to a damaging extent. (Victor Garber, who played opposite Lane, had an even harder time of it.) McGillin gives full value to his songs, anyway.

Offering strong support is Michele Pawk, in a role that appears to have been considerably expanded over the course of time (and not convincingly so). Pawk brings a lot to her songs, especially "What's Your Rush" and "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened." Jane Powell, who has been singing in the spotlight for sixty — count 'em — years, makes a feisty Mama. Gavin Creel is strong as Hollis Bessemer, the black sheep scion who bankrolls Addison. (This character in Wise Guys went under the name Paris Singer, the sewing machine heir best remembered for fathering a son with Isadora Duncan.) Creel does an especially appealing job with his song about "Talent," or the lack of it. Jonathan Tunick provides his customarily impeccable orchestrations.

So Bounce was here, and now it's gone. At least so far. Sondheim and Weidman's prior venture, which was quickly withdrawn after a limited run at Playwrights Horizons in 1991, is today a front-runner for the 2004 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. So I wouldn't count Bounce out, despite present appearances.


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