Stephen Sondheim’s problematic here again-gone again musical “Road Show” has finally made it to San Francisco. Originally titled “Wise Guys” at its 1999 New York premiere, the musical, with book by John Weidman, resurfaced as a substantially rewritten and retitled “Bounce” in 2003.
Then it morphed into the far more explicitly gay “Road Show,” which premiered in December 2008 at New York’s Public Theatre.
It is that still-troubled version, more or less — musical director Dave Dobrusky’s upright piano is hardly a substitute for a mini-orchestra — that has reached Theatre Rhinoceros.
Given the four-letter reference to sex that hits the audience over the head at the start of this production, no one will have trouble figuring out that Sondheim chose to make “Road Show” his onstage coming-out vehicle.
Nor is there difficulty assessing the show’s checkered history. Most of its melodically undistinguished songs are so topical, they lose their meaning out of context.
There are a few winners — “(You Are) The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened (To Me)” is a wonderful love song with universal appeal — but most of Sondheim’s song-and-dance ditties run along at a hot hoofer’s pace.
Then there is the two-faced, based-on-historical-events book.
Weidman’s tale of the homoerotic-tinged love affair between the two Mizner brothers — Addison (Bill Fahrner), the world-wandering, money-squandering, gifted, gay, visionary architect prone to excess and bad choices, and Wilson (Rudy Guerrero), the perpetual schemer and shyster — follows them from their youth in Benicia with Papa (Kim Larson) and Mama (Kathryn Wood) as they jointly, then individually, make their way around the globe, squandering their fortunes.
During one of their enforced separations, Addison meets young artist Hollis Besssemer (Michael Doppe) and falls in love. Thanks to Hollis’ connections, they begin to build extravagant palaces for the rich of Palm Springs until brother Wilson comes along and leads the threesome down the wrong path to Boca Raton, Fla.
Along the way there are lots of deaths, which, like everything else, are treated so humorously that the many dark elements of the story are subsumed in a way that leaves the whole affair neither here nor there.
There are a few wonderful performances. Guerrero is exceptional, Fahrner almost as convincing, Doppe quite fetching and Ae’Jay Mitchell (in multiple roles) a real find.
And Gilbert Johnson’s droll sets manage to say a lot with very little. But if “preposterous” is the ultimate descriptor of “Road Show,” it’s hard to tell if it is due to the historical facts, its creators’ failures or John Fisher’s direction. When all is said and done, this “Road Show” comes across as a titillating but ultimately vacuous one-night stand.
Presented by Theatre Rhinoceros
Where: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes Jan. 19
Tickets: $15 to $30