`Bounce': fun but not quite a ball

TheaterReview

November 01, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Two opposing slants on the resilient American spirit, embodied by two fortune-hunting brothers, are at the core of Bounce, the new Stephen Sondheim musical at Washington's Kennedy Center.

One of the most melodic and doggedly optimistic works in the composer's canon, Bounce, which has a book by John Weidman, depicts the love-hate relationship between the real-life, turn-of-the-20th-century Mizner brothers - Addison, an architect, and Wilson, a jack of many trades, including gambling and con artistry.

Both brothers exemplify the American can-do outlook. But they go at it from very different angles. Addison works hard; Wilson plays hard. Addison is methodical; Wilson is impetuous. Addison makes his own opportunities; Wilson is simply opportunistic.

Yet thematically and musically rich as Bounce may be, it is hampered by a framing device that feels too pat, even for a musical that is deliberately, and often delightfully, old-fashioned. And after a first act overflowing with incident and globe-spanning adventures, the pace slows in the second act, which focuses almost entirely on the Florida land boom and bust of the 1920s.

The framing device, beginning and ending the musical, is the brothers' deaths and ascension to heaven, which is clearly the last place either expected to end up or see each other again. A knock-down, drag-out fight - they're not exactly happy about this posthumous reunion - takes them back to their youth, where their dying father encourages them to seize opportunity and "learn to bounce." The fact that the bank then repossesses everything the family owns, including the father's deathbed with his corpse still in it, sets up a pattern of fortune and failure that repeats throughout the brothers' lives.

Under the direction of Harold Prince - collaborating with Sondheim for the first time in more than two decades - Richard Kind and Howard McGillin portray Addison and Wilson as so wildly dissimilar, they barely seem related. Kind's Addison is doughy and ill at ease until he finally falls in love (more on that in a moment). McGillin's Wilson, on the other hand, is urbane and slick, the kind of man who knows he can get by on good looks and a clever tongue.

Addison comes to despise Wilson, who repeatedly wrecks whatever Addison achieves. The two journey to the Yukon gold rush where Addison discovers gold and Wilson gambles. Addison then travels the world, investing in one shaky enterprise after another, while Wilson follows the seemingly easier route of marrying a wealthy widow and attempting to squander her millions. That's act one.

In act two, Addison forges a career designing mansions in Florida; Wilson jumps on the land-boom bandwagon and takes Addison down with him when the boom goes bust.

Through it all, the brothers are locked in a destructive symbiotic relationship. So strong is their inescapable bond that when Addison finally falls in love, his lover - suave Gavin Creel as the disowned son of an industrial magnate - displays some of the same parasitic charm as Wilson.

A number in the second act, "You," demonstrates how fluidly the show works at its best. In the course of this song, Addison finds love, jumpstarts the architectural career that changes the face of Florida and is reunited with his ex-sister-in-law. Comic, romantic and swift, it's a model of economical storytelling.

The sister-in-law, called Nellie and played by Michele Pawk with brash appeal, is a composite character who reappears throughout the brothers' adult lives. Created after Prince joined the project - which had a tumultuous workshop under another director in 1999 - Nellie is a wonderfully perky addition, and her romantic duet with Wilson, "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened," is a lilting joy.

Nellie isn't the musical's only significant female character, however. Addison and Wilson's mother, played by petite, soft-voiced Jane Powell, is the wellspring of much of her sons' drive and ingenuity. And Addison's rivalry for her love helps fuel his animosity toward Wilson, her unequivocal favorite.

Addison appears to be the one person Wilson is unable to charm, and hearing Wilson plead, "Say it: You love me," in heaven feels forced and out of character. Similarly, the jaunty, optimistic celestial ending is also more convenient than earned, either by the characters or their historic counterparts.

But then, Bounce harks back to an era when musicals almost always had happy endings, as well as tuneful scores. Sondheim's brassy, period-flavored songs tap into that tuneful tradition (the title song and Wilson's credo, "The Game," are among the most hummable). This simpler style is further reflected in Eugene Lee's sets, which shun technological effects in favor of such old-time, but wittily rendered, scenic devices as cloth drops.

Bounce depicts an America where anyone can reinvent himself, if he dares - even America's leading musical theater composer. In this case, however, Sondheim and Weidman aren't daring to create a new form, but to show what they can do with an old one. They are honoring the traditional, all-American musical of their forebears.

In many respects, the dare succeeds. Bounce leaves audiences tapping their feet, humming the tunes and maybe even believing, like the indefatigable Mizners, that opportunity is always just around the corner. Right now, however, that's where Bounce's opportunity remains - it's hovering nearby, but not yet entirely within reach.

Bounce

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; matinees 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Nov. 16

Tickets: $25-$90

Call: 800-444-1324

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