Robert Lenzi, Andrew Rothenberg, and Michael Aaron Lindner
Robert Lenzi, Andrew Rothenberg, and Michael Aaron Lindner Credit: Liz Lauren

I’d love to see Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Road Show become a big fat hit, just for Michael Aaron Lindner’s sake.

Large boned and baby faced, Lindner has jigged as Fezziwig, the jolly merchant of A Christmas Carol; worn a muumuu as Edna, the jolly mama of Hairspray; and romanced an ogress as the jolly green title character of Shrek: The Musical. But Road Show has him starring as a scandalous historical figure—Addison Mizner, the Jazz Age architect and scam artist who pretty much invented Boca Raton, Florida—and the role takes him well beyond jolly.

In fact, it looks to me like the part of a lifetime for a musical-theater artist who doesn’t conform to leading-man physical conventions.

Opening with Addison on his deathbed in 1933, Stephen Sondheim’s score and John Weidman’s book follow him back across a wild (and liberally fictionalized) life. First Addison is a put-upon yet devoted patsy for his bad-boy brother, Wilson, as they prospect gold in Alaska. Next he’s a tenacious but unlucky optimist, traveling the world in search of a fortune that gets swallowed up by fire, bad weather, or revolution every time he tries to collect. Then, back in the United States, he makes what appears to be still another bad bet, this time on swampland in Florida.

During the train ride down to Palm Beach, however, Addison meets a well-heeled, well-connected young patrician named Hollis Bessemer, who stirs his imagination with a utopian plan for building a city dedicated entirely to art, and turns his head with good looks and a generous nature. The two of them become lovers.

More important in the long run, they become a going concern. Having transformed himself into an architect (exactly how is one of Road Show‘s unexplained mysteries), Addison mines Hollis’s wealthy friends for clients, building them Spanish Revival villas, each one more lavish and grotesque than the last. Addison has finally struck it rich, which sends brother Wilson—a natural, even philosophical con man—running back to him, snorting cocaine, coughing up blood, and wearing the last rags from his formerly high-class wardrobe. The brothers quickly turn Hollis’s dream of “Versailles by the Sea” into a trap for rubes: Boca.

Lindner gets a lot of help from the 12-member ensemble with which director Gary Griffin has surrounded him—particularly from Robert Lenzi as sweet, sad Hollis and Andrew Rothenberg, whose compulsive and mostly futile flimflammery as Wilson reminds me of nothing so much as the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail who refuses to admit defeat even after his four limbs have been hacked off. Still, whatever triumph there is in Road Show belongs to Lindner. His performance shows us Addison in all his fascinating complexity, from doughy, pink follower of rules through inspired romantic to lost soul. Plus, he can sing.

Trouble is, it’s a triumph in a lost cause. Of course, this is Sondheim as processed through Griffin (whose Chicago Shakespeare staging of Sunday in the Park With George was one of the great pleasures of the 2012 season), so there’s necessarily a higher level of available wit and sophistication here than you’ll find in most other musicals you’re likely to see. I was particularly impressed with the extended scene in which Sondheim and Weidman chronicle Addison’s travels through the world, and charmed by the toy-theater approach scenic designer Scott Davis takes in depicting Addison’s architectural work. Still, the score sounds more like a collection of Sondheim strategies than the heart of the new late-career musical Road Show is supposed to be. Much as I love the music from, say, Into the Woods—and I truly do love it—I don’t need to hear it recycled through an alternate narrative. It was fine as it was. Oddly enough, the most successful song in the show is “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened,” an old-fashioned, Gershwinesque tune that might be considered out of place on purely aesthetic grounds.

Sondheim has been fiddling with the Mizner brothers’ story for years. The material first saw light as Wise Guys in 1999. Another version was called Gold, and still another played Goodman Theatre in 2003 under the title Bounce. Road Show is probably the best of the bunch. Certainly, it outdoes Bounce, which the Reader‘s Albert Williams called “tedious and preachy.” Maybe the fifth try will be the charm. I only hope Lindner will be free to play Addison when it’s ready.