Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre is studded with masterworks, many of which have been presented at Lyric Stage Company of Boston under the guiding hand of producing artistic director Spiro Veloudos.
“Road Show’’ is no masterwork, however. This is second-rate Sondheim, and not even the combined talents of Veloudos and co-director/choreographer Ilyse Robbins, presiding over the musical’s New England premiere at Lyric Stage, can elevate “Road Show’’ beyond its fundamental mediocrity.
Apart from a couple of songs, Sondheim’s score is largely forgettable, and matters aren’t helped any by John Weidman’s confused libretto. The duo collaborated to much better effect on “Assassins’’ and “Pacific Overtures’’ — just two of the superior Sondheim musicals from which you may hear echoes in “Road Show.’’
Though much revised (and renamed) over the years as Sondheim and Weidman struggled to pound it into shape, “Road Show’’ still feels muddled, in need of a sharper focus and more narrative verve as it unfolds from the 1890s through the 1930s, attempting to trace the exploits as well as the relationship of real-life brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner.
The travels of this fortune-seeking duo took them to Alaska during the Gold Rush, to Florida during the land boom, to Broadway, to Hollywood, to pretty much anywhere opportunity beckoned. Addison was an architect and a gay bon vivant who left his stamp on Palm Beach; Wilson was a gambler, a playwright, a manager of prizefighters, and an all-purpose rogue who married a wealthy widow.
One can see why Sondheim and Weidman were drawn to the story of this raffish duo and their misadventures. Yet there is curiously little in “Road Show’’ to make that story compelling, and although Addison and Wilson were eccentric embodiments of self-invention and reinvention — all-American themes if ever there were ones — those themes are but shallowly explored.
The strain of trying to bring thin characters to life is evident in the effortful performances by Neil A. Casey (Addison) and Tony Castellanos (Wilson). Laboring valiantly but unsuccessfully throughout the 90-minute Lyric Stage production, both actors come up short in terms of charisma and emotional depth. Acquitting himself better is Patrick Varner as Hollis Bessemer, Addison’s business and romantic partner, while Vanessa J. Schukis has a few poignant moments as the wistful mother of the wayward Mizner boys. Cristina Todesco’s set, piled high with dressers, chairs, and lamps, suggests America’s attic, bursting at the seams.
It has been a long road for “Road Show,’’ which has a tortured production history. After premiering two decades ago under the title “Wise Guys,’’ the musical was revised and renamed “Bounce’’ for productions in Chicago and Washington a few years later, then retitled “Road Show’’ for a production at New York’s Public Theater in 2008, under the direction of John Doyle.
You have to admire the willingness of Sondheim and Weidman to keep toiling away at the project. But in failing to stake its own distinctive claim on either the heart or the head, “Road Show’’ stands as a reminder that practice doesn’t always make perfect.
Of course, no Sondheim musical could ever be wholly devoid of value. The porous boundary between entrepreneur and con artist is a place the songwriter has explored for his entire career; Wilson Mizner is among a long line of fast-talking schemers who have kindled Sondheim’s imagination. In “Road Show,’’ one result is “The Game,’’ sung by Wilson to his brother Addison: “The whole thing’s nothing more than just a game/And, Addie, what I’m good at is the game . . . Better than girls/Better than booze/Beating ace high with a pair of twos/Better than snowdrifts in your shoes/Even if now and then you lose . . .’’’
The song is a piquant reminder that Sondheim can convey a certain kind of jaunty, knife-edged fatalism better than anyone. Overall, though, “Road Show’’ has to be seen as one in the loss column for the master.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Co-directed by Spiro Veloudos and Ilyse Robbins. Music direction, Jonathan Goldberg. Choreography, Ilyse Robbins. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through Feb. 11. Tickets from $25. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.comDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.