Broadway, Baby!

The lobby bustled with prospectors, all atwitter over the treasure of a new Stephen Sondheim musical, the first to surface in nearly a decade, and the first Sondheim ever intended to write. He got the idea for “Bounce” in 1952 after reading several articles about the eccentric Mizner brothers. He shelved it, though, and went on to forge new frontiers in musical theater. After several incarnations and an expected pathology of gossip, his show has bounced its way into the Kennedy Center. It may have taken 50 years to unveil but, like uncorking a long-cellared Bordeaux, it was well worth the wait. The American musical has again been revitalized by Stephen Sondheim.

The production is ripe with the usual introspection that is Sondheim’s forte, but it is also a musical in the tradition of “Oklahoma!” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” It embraces both the principles of Broadway’s golden age as well as the composer’s own ambivalent tendencies.

“Bounce” is a globetrotting chronicle of Addison and Wilson Mizner’s attempts at enterprise beginning in early 20th century California and ending in Boca Raton (and later, heaven, much to the brothers’ astonishment). Pit stops in revolutionary Guatemala, China and Gold Rush-era Alaska serve as touchstones for the brothers’ trials, errors and progressions.

Sondheim’s score is a tilt-of-the-hat and a generous contribution to the integrity of the earthy pageantry that is American folk music. Mr. Sondheim uses the compositions of the early musical pioneers like Scott Joplin as jumping-off points for his own melodies. His song “Gold,” for example, has a home-grown effervescence warmly steeped in homage. By attempting to both effect and affect the brisk, whiskey-fueled tenor of the gold-packed Klondike and its debauched haunts, “Bounce” is to Americana what “Follies” is to vaudeville pastiche.

The title song is ultimately the show’s heart; its throb hinges on the way it’s sung and the context within which it beats. But although its themes and melody are thrice iterated, none can be called reprise.

The smoky “What’s Your Rush?” sounds especially plush when sung by the delicious Michelle Pawk, who makes love to the footlights and summons all eyes to her lips as she beckons Wilson to bunk with her for the winter.

“The Game,” “Addison’s City” and “You” are all abject lessons on zesty theater writing because the music doesn’t combat the lyrics for attention. Yes, they’re tuneful labors of love, but Sondheim’s melodies never overwhelm their most important bedfellows – his wonderful words. The phrase “Some things you lose, and some you win / but never trying’s the only sin” receives tender support from the grace notes wafting up out of the pit.

The musical director and conductor, David Caddick, tends to muddle the buoyancy of Jonathan Tunick’s Copland-esque orchestrations. A bit more pecolation in his baton work would liven things up considerably.

With that said, “Bounce” is not yet finished. The performers admirably fill out their roles, though some fare better than others. As Addison, Richard Kind is ideal for this material. He acts his way through the songs and finds real music in the words. And Howard McGillan as Wilson shrewdly assumes the persona of a born swindler who wraps himself in a mantle of false securities. But the part of Hollis (Addison’s lover), though prettily writ and played, is a tad remote. Jane Powell, as Mama Mizner, boasts a flute-like vibrato and seems to float on a cloud of maternal adulation, giving her scenes much-needed lift.

Michael Arnold’s sporadic choreography should be abandoned altogether. In the few moments the score allows for a bit of kick-up-your-heels dynamism, Arnold’s pantomimes are little more than lead-footed ambles across the stage. “Bounce” is not a dancing musical, and any stylized movement appears crowbarred in.

This is especially true given the graceful fluidity with which director Harold Prince has already provided the production. Scenes move almost cinematically, leading to the circuitous (but not anticlimactic) bookending of the show. Scenic designer Eugene Lee’s clever sketches of backdrops move on and off stage in surprising and thrilling fashion, serving as metaphor for the fluently self-reinventing Mizners, who could very well represent fragments of Sondheim’s own ever-changing body of work.

To determine just what makes Stephen Sondheim the Bard of Broadway is a nearly impossible task. A song from his repertory is like a great vintage, marked by subtle notes and flavors. Professional wine aficionados liken their subject to commonplace tastes and smells, from jams and citrus fruits to hints of the arboreal. And while they can distinguish a superior product from the rest, articulating what makes it so proves more difficult. Such is the trouble with deconstructing Sondheim – it takes a palette as sharp as his to even begin clarifying the depth of his talent.

At its most apparent, “Bounce’s” brilliance is in the details. For example, when each character dies, the sound of a book closing loudly claps, signaling the end of one of life’s chapters and the beginning of another. This effect proves innovative for some in the audience and unsettling for others.

The writer William Goldman once said, “Whatever you call it, the thing that characterizes popular theater is this: it wants to tell us either a truth that we already know or a falsehood we want to believe in.” Sondheim has never subscribed to the conventions of the conventional. Rather, he writes about complicated people in difficult circumstances, without clearly delineating who, if anyone, the audience should root for or against. His protagonists, like real people, don’t set out to be good or be bad; they realize it’s hard enough just being.

A character sings, “The moon is an accident of light,” by which Sondheim means nothing is preordained. Success isn’t something you plan, it’s something you pursue, and in the end, it happens only by chance. The brothers Mizner experience many ups and downs, professionally and personally, but the lesson to be learned from their story is that they never fail to try. They embody the indomitable American spirit, bouncing back time and time again. In this respect, “Bounce” is an inspirational, not a cautionary, tale, and it is as feel-good a musical as has ever been; it’s just not surface pleasure. Finally, amid the monotonous landscape of the modern musical theater, there’s a glimmer of promise in them thar’ hills. and like anything great in life, all you need do is dig a bit to find it.

“Bounce” is being performed at the Kennedy Center through November 16 at 8p.m. throughout the week as well as 2:30 p.m. on Sundays.
Ticket prices range from $25-$90
Call 1-800-444-1324 for details.

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