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“Keep your eye on the man in the blue blazer,” says the man in the blue blazer toward the end of Bounce, the new Stephen Sondheim musical that’s had theater freaks holding their breath since—oh, roughly 1994. And make no mistake, raffish schemer Wilson Mizner is one to watch: He’s the guy with the charm, the guy with the style, the guy with the gusto that his decent nebbish of a brother, Addison, can’t begin to muster.

But look past the dazzle and you realize that Willie’s also a guy with a problem: He’s hard to warm up to. And so is Bounce. It’s solid but never sensational, entertaining but only once or twice electric, smart and occasionally sweet but rarely really stirring. Respectable, in short, but not the landmark Sondheim’s acolytes were hoping for.

Accepted theater-journalist shorthand says Bounce is an American fable, a skeptical celebration of the way we Yankees answer opportunity’s knock, a big-theme story about ingenuity and drive and resilience inspired by the adventures of a particularly colorful pair of operators. But there’s more, as you’d expect from a Sondheim show: It’s a family portrait, a psychological study, a funny, painful, worldly look at two brothers who can’t live with or without each other.

And on many levels, Bounce works nicely. Sondheim’s songwriting gifts certainly haven’t deserted him; the score is alive with intriguingly elusive melodies, deliciously unexpected cadences, and vocal harmonies all the more ravishing for their relative rarity. His crowd scenes display a structural complexity few if any writers could match, and they’re deftly executed, too, with a strong supporting ensemble matching the principals step for step.

Of those principals, Richard Kind’s hapless Addie Mizner—reluctant prospector, accidental architect, perpetual second fiddle—is immensely likable and heartbreakingly human. Michele Pawk couldn’t be more winning; there’s neither too much hooker nor too much heart of gold in her Nellie, whose path keeps crossing the Mizners’ as she goes from the dance hall to the top of society’s heap—only a perfect amalgam of weariness, wisdom, and wry humor. Gavin Creel comes late to the party (his Hollis Bessemer arrives only in Act 2), but he livens things up considerably with a convincing performance and a tenor voice of surpassing sweetness.

Howell Binkley’s lighting isn’t just expressive and inventive—it’s intoxicating, in ways both ostentatious and subtle. And Harold Prince’s direction—though it’s perhaps a trifle too enamored of linear arrangements, even for a show that consciously echoes the staging traditions of an earlier era—is generally witty and sharp, with clevernesses both visual and aural deployed throughout.

So what’s off about Bounce? Its balance, for one thing. Sondheim & Co. have put so much weight on the personal stories that the professional adventures of the Mizner brothers seem almost incidental, which they decidedly were not: History finds the frequently grubby fingerprints of Willie and/or Addie Mizner on Alaskan gold-rush claims, Hawaiian pineapple plantations, Guatemalan coffee cartels, New York drug dens, dubious Florida land schemes, doped Saratoga racehorses, rigged Manhattan prizefights, and colorful scripts of both the Broadway and Hollywood varieties. And those are just the highlights.

But if we’re to marvel at the way our heroes bounce back when a moneymaking scheme goes bust—and the suitably angular title song makes it clear we’re meant to—then the career highs need to be thrilling, and the lows need to hit damn hard. As the show is currently constituted, the entrepreneurial ups and downs get thoroughly upstaged by the interpersonal ones. The excitements of the Mizners’ Yukon excursion—a gold strike, a high-stakes poker game, a saloon shootout—for example, are quickly eclipsed by a number (“Next to You”) that establishes Howard McGillin’s dubiously slick Willie as Mama Mizner’s fair-haired boy and Addison as the perennial runner-up in the maternal-affection stakes.

Similarly, Willie’s headline-making misadventures in high-society New York are conflated with his troubled relationship with Pawk’s Nellie. And the collapse of his house of cards comes just before the expiration of Mama Mizner (the MGM-musical veteran Jane Powell, who’s sweet in all the right ways but not the emotionally crippling presence the script seems to call for). On her deathbed, attended only by the dutiful Addie, the matriarch gets in one more deeply wounding number (the lyrical and lacerating “Isn’t He Something!”) about the thrill of living vicariously through her scalawag of a younger son.

Even Addison’s rise to star-architect status and the subsequent implosion of a real-estate project come in the context of relationship drama. Willie reconnects with Nellie, and Addie finally finds a guy—Hollis—to supply the emotional and professional support his family hasn’t been able to offer. Can he keep him? Ask instead whether Willie can stomach being supplanted as the center of his brother’s world: Of course not, and the show’s most powerful moment comes when Addie realizes that Willie’s flash and magnetism have once again seduced away a person whose love and esteem Addie desperately needs. Kind telegraphs that epiphany with an eloquent minimalism—a slump of the shoulders, a halfhearted reach that dies before it ever really gets going—and the personal disasters trump the professional yet again.

But Bounce, it seems, is meant to be a portrait of a bipolar America as seen through the binocular lens of the Mizners; our national ethos celebrates Willie’s at-all-costs ambition as much as it claims to value Addie’s honest, halting pursuit of happiness, and we’ve spent two centuries and more pretending not to feel the tension between the two imperatives. (Teapot Dome, anyone? Enron?) The metaphor’s there, but it’s least focused when the private dramas seem more important than the public ones. Happily, clarity returns in the show’s final scene, which suggests that if greed and goodness are inseparable impulses in the American character, we’ve at least got no deadline for reconciling them.

But then, paradoxically enough, there’s also the problem of Willie, the one impersonal element in an oft-overpersonal show. He’s intoxicating on the surface, sure, but we never see enough of his better nature to care much when he goes bad. McGillin does nice work in that early Alaska scene, the only one in which we get to observe Willie wrestling with his conscience, but after that we never really expect him to do the right thing—so there’s not much drama when he does the wrong one. And there’s no real payoff when, in the show’s final moments, he finally confronts Addie with the uncomfortable truth that may be at the root of their troubled relationship.

No payoff yet, anyway: Like any show with Broadway hopes but no firm booking, this one’s a work in progress, and by all accounts it’s already a good deal more solid than it was in its summer Chicago run. If Sondheim and his collaborators can resolve the show’s paradox—if they can find a way to make Willie’s failings more individual and his failures more epic—the Mizners may have a bounce or two in them yet.

Across town, another writer with an otherwise sterling reputation is being represented by another unwieldy show. And though the producers have clearly spent some money and the director has gone to considerable lengths to wrestle the play into submission, the end result is still a bit off-kilter—and this time the author is not available for rewrites.

All’s Well That Ends Well is the Shakespeare dramedy whose plot no one can remember, probably because it doesn’t make a lick of sense: The lovely but low-born orphan Helena falls for the handsome scion of her aristocratic adoptive family, and when a medicine inherited from her doctor father proves the curative for a king’s near-fatal illness, she claims the young man as her reward. He’s appalled and offended; she’s crushed but determined. He says he’ll never accept her until she can present him with (a) the heirloom ring he never takes off his finger and (b) a child begotten by him; she promptly engineers the delivery of both, even though he’s traded Paris for Tuscany just to put some distance between them. Trapped by her fulfillment of his terms, he decides he can manage to love her after all—and she, for some incomprehensible reason, decides not to kill him in his sleep at the first available opportunity.

The trouble with All’s Well has always been that Bertram, Helena’s snot-nosed snob of a love object, is so resolutely unsympathetic that you don’t want her to win him over. You want her to kick the arrogant jackass squarely in the codpiece, or to run off and live Sapphically ever after with the nubile but virtuous Tuscan girl whose assistance—along with a heaping and typically Shakespearean helping of coincidence—is key to the production of the baby and the bauble. Helena’s, in fine, is an unmistakably noble love for a patently ignoble object.

One way to stage All’s Well so it ends well—as director Richard Clifford clearly knows—is to discover the roots of Bertram’s asininity in his inexperience rather than his character: If our girl can love him long enough and truly enough, he might grow up enough to love her back. But Shakespeare throws up hurdles: He gives Bertram language suggesting a maturation process, true, but he also gives him a genuinely vicious bit of behavior in the play’s final scene. And if Clifford and most of his Folger Theatre cast are selling the idea that Helena’s young lord is simply callow rather than actively hateful, they’re undermined by one critical element of their production.

That would be, um, its Bertram: James Ginty is as pretty and as cold as you might expect, but he seems to have missed the memo on the whole inexperience thing. He plays the character as too smart not to have considered the effect of his words, too

worldly not to have weighed the import of his actions. That impression doesn’t merely sink the seasoning-of-the-green-youth approach; it makes a hash as well of the play’s major subplot, which concerns the humbling of another preening, arrogant man—and, not incidentally, Bertram’s discovery that not everyone is as worthy (or, by inference, as unworthy) as they first appear. It’s not remotely plausible that Ginty’s thoroughly composed Bertram would have been taken in by the absurd peacockery of Rick Hammerly’s boastful Parolles—so the extended second-act sequence in which Parolles’ fellow officers dupe him into betraying his cowardice and his country comes to precisely naught.

There are pleasures to be taken away from the production, though. Tony Cisek has found yet another way to make the Folger’s Elizabethan-style playing space seem roomier than it is; Rick Foucheux’s King of France is satisfyingly forbidding in his wrath when Bertram first balks at marrying Helena; Suzanne Richard makes a saucy, salacious Fool; Naomi Jacobson, Anne Stone, and Erika Sheffer are a warm, winsome trio of toscani; and Catherine Flye mingles a mother’s compassion and a noblewoman’s pained sense of propriety when Helena first confesses that she’s fallen in love above her station.

Holly Twyford, as audiences will have come to expect, does good work as Helena, finding a real sense of pathos in her early grief, a convincing skittishness in the middle going, and a calm, dignified purposefulness in the later scenes. If the figure she cuts isn’t quite the ravishing beauty the text rhapsodizes about, it’s no fault of her own. Someone’s burdened the actress with a matron’s upswept hairdo, and costumer Kathleen Geldard imprisons her first in mourning weeds, then in a gunmetal-gray dress so unflattering it might as well be a suit of armor. Perhaps it’s meant to be a metaphor; if so, it—like the production itself, come to think of it—is a mixed success. CP