- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

For a musical titled “Bounce,” there is a surprising lack of buoyancy and lift to composer Stephen Sondheim’s first new musical since 1994’s “Passion,” which had a scouring intensity. Seamy and passionless, “Bounce” is filled with unappealing characters and a score that’s brilliant only in fits and starts.

It’s not as if Mr. Sondheim, John Weidman (author of the clunky book) and director Hal Prince didn’t have a rich cache of source material. “Bounce” is based on the stranger-than-fiction true-life vicissitudes of the irascible Mizner brothers, Addison (Richard Kind) and Wilson (Howard McGillin).

Like their father, Lansing Mizner (Herndon Lackey), a California land speculator who gained and lost fortunes the way Oprah goes on diets, Addison and Willie are unrepentant risk-takers. Their get-rich-quick schemes have been encouraged by their hard-as-nails mother, Mama (Jane Powell), who’s so busy worrying about where her next purloined buck is going to come from that she has little time for sentiment or emotion.

When Lansing sings his deathbed song, “Opportunity” (when he vouchsafes to his sons the vague advice “Always look to the West”), and then croaks, Mama flings a sheet over him and moves on before the last note has died out.

Of course, Mama doesn’t get the waterworks, either. On her own deathbed later in Act 1, she sings a lovely and plaintive psalm to her prodigal son, Willie, titled “Isn’t He Something.” An unsentimental Addison uses her sudden passing as a means to play a nasty prank on his brother.

Mama is a combination of an amoral Ma Joad, Ma Barker and a spunky sociopath — and she has passed on these traits to her sons. Therein lies the biggest problem with “Bounce”: Addison and Willie, as portrayed with yeomanlike dedication by Mr. Kind and Mr. McGillin, are two-bit creeps. The real-life brothers hobnobbed with the rich and titled — Irving Berlin wrote songs about them, Anita Loos celebrated them in her autobiography, and playwright S.N. Behrman was itching to write a play about them. Sure, they were flimflam men, but the Mizner brothers must have been charming or, at the very least, endowed with outsized self-confidence and joie de vivre that attracted the famous and wealthy.

Willie was a wastrel, but one quick with the quips and vastly entertaining. Addison was more methodical and discreet than his freewheeling brother. A gifted (albeit eccentric) self-taught architect, he pioneered the Palm Beach style during the 1920s with his outlandish fantasy mansions for the rich.

In “Bounce,” Addison has a mean, dark streak hidden behind the guise of a schlub. Willie may be more conventionally alluring, but the musical portrays him as a drunk and a cokehead.

An air of deep cynicism and crassness pervades “Bounce,” and each character is tainted. Willie’s love interest, Nellie (the husky-voiced Michele Pawk), a gold-rush saloon girl who rises in society through serial marriages, is painted as such a hard-bitten, tin-hearted alcoholic that warming to her is nearly impossible.

You want to get as far away from “Bounce’s” Mizner family as you can, which leaves the audience searching for something, anything, to glom onto. In this case, that proves to be Eugene Lee’s clever and nimble set changes — a church becomes a steamy boudoir, a rooming house an elaborate and fantastical architectural drawing.

Mr. Lee’s work is an elegant tribute to yesteryear, but when you find yourself applauding set changes, you know a show’s in trouble. “Bounce” may be a tribute to “the game,” a never-ending succession of tricks and frauds, but when the audience feels taken, where’s the fun in that?

**

WHAT: “Bounce” by Stephen Sondheim

WHERE: Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through November 16.

TICKETS: $25 to $90

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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