Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sondheim's "Anyone Can Whistle" Gets an Encore

Jon Alan Conrad reviews "Anyone Can Whistle" at City Center's Encores!

Anybody up on Sondheim lore knows the legend of “Anyone Can Whistle”: a one-week flop in 1964 that was preserved on a recording and remains one of the least-revived of all his titles. And not unfairly: the musical mastery that would click into place so consistently 6 years later in “Company” is still in its formative stages here, and the lyrics, however masterfully crafted (he had after all already written the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy), are placed at the service of Arthur Laurents's jejune book.

This "musical fable" takes place in a bankrupt town whose venal mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper stages a miracle (water from a rock) to attract visitors and income. The scientifically-minded nurse at the local looney bin, Fay Apple, is determined to expose the miracle for the fraud it is. In the process, her charges mingle unrecognizably with the townspeople, and it takes a newcomer to town, J. Bowden Hapgood, to straighten things out. Or confuse them even more.

This premise serves to launch a number of statements that Laurents wanted to make: about the pervasiveness of government corruption, about the importance of individual rebellion against authority, and (the most tiresome and omnipresent of all 1960s clichés) that those commonly deemed “insane” are in fact saner than “normal” people.

Fortunately, the authors also wanted to play with possibilities of theatricality, and this “fun” side of the show has worn better: alternation between different ways of storytelling (narration, pantomime, regular action, parodistic exaggeration); random stylistic jumps (one scene is spoken in French, with English subtitles); and at one point, a reversal of roles between audience and actors (they sit in theater seats and applaud us as the lights come up for intermission).

The side of “Anyone Can Whistle” that aims to educate us on a few important things will never do much for me, but I can certainly have a good time with its showbizzy, spoofy side, especially with Stephen Sondheim’s alternately quirky and moving score to help.

The other thing that can help is the caliber of performance that the New York City Center “Encores!” series provided in the five performances on April 8 through 11. These semi-concert productions of musicals that deserve another viewing (actors carry scripts after a week’s rehearsal, the orchestra is onstage behind them, the book is slightly adapted to suit the situation, sets and costumes are only suggested) have become a most welcome three-times-a-year institution -- “Anyone Can Whistle” ended the 17th season.

Director Casey Nicholaw carried the concept of the onstage theater seats (for that “role reversal” moment at the end of Act I) throughout the entire production as its visual motif. He and script adapter David Ives also extended the narrator roles from the opening scene to the show, to fill us in on missing visual elements (like water gushing from a rock). He organized the crazy goings-on so that they made as much sense as they can. And he choreographed entertainingly, for the four omnipresent backup boys who turn Cora’s every song into a period nightclub number, and especially for the climactic “Chase” ballet (Cora tells her police force “I expect you to be on your toes!” and up on pointe they go).

We also had a splendid company of principals. Cora’s three henchmen (comptroller, treasurer, chief of police) assumed appropriately cartoonish size with the vivid and contrasted presences of Edward Hibbert, Jeff Blumenkrantz, and John Ellison Conlee. The Mayoress herself benefited from the gifts of Donna Murphy, a classier and more controlled performer than the camp divas often entrusted with the part, yet able to put her over-the-top numbers across with panache (and at times visually reminiscent of Andrea Martin’s “Edith Prickley” from SCTV).

Best of all, we had Sutton Foster and Raúl Esparza as Fay and Hapgood. She launched a fine fiery tirade in her first scene, then broke our hearts with a sensitively understated rendition of the title song. He commanded the stage with an easy charisma from his first entrance, finishing with a simple and sincere “With So Little To Be Sure Of.” The combination of the two of them provided the peak moments people will be talking about in years to come.

Amazingly, this is the fourth production I’ve seen of “Anyone Can Whistle.” In a sense, it will never really “work,” but for many portions of it, I never expect to see it done better than this.


  1. Thanks, Jon! That really is a fabulous cast. I am quite jealous that I didn't get to see Donna Murphy in this role. I've seen "Anyone Can Whistle" only once, and it was pretty much a catastrophe of a production. Very sleazy and ugly throughout. I know it's s tough one to pull off, but that's what Encores is all about, I suppose -- resurrecting the unresurrectible.

  2. Was that the Pegasus Players production in Chicago a few years back? I saw that one, and yes -- it didn't do the piece any favors, to put it mildly. The Fay and Hapgood were OK (maybe better), but the Cora was the stuff of nightmares. And the director did not, to put it mildly, encourage her to restrain her excesses.

    It'll really always be a "curiosity" -- there's a reason all the later shows (and "Forum") get regular commercial revivals and this one doesn't. But for a specially interested audience for one weekend? I'm there.

  3. (Whoops -- honest, "to put it mildly" is not my favorite phrase, despite my putting it in consecutive sentences! That's what comes of last-minute editing followed by a quick click of "Post." sigh...)

  4. Did they do an "Anyone Can Whistle" at the Kennedy Center?

  5. Nope. First trio was Company/Sweeney/Sunday, second was NightMusic/Passion/Merrily. Plus a local school's "Woods Jr" guest shot, and throwing in the Tokyo Overtures in the fall.

    And it was one of the special Ravinia concerts in 2005 (Patti-Audra-Cerv).

    It would take a production that went to Cirque-de-Soleil-like lengths of dazzle to get a run out of Whistle, I think; and really, would it be worth it?

  6. I can't believe I didn't mention the fabulous Encores! Orchestra, under the sterling direction of Rob Berman, playing Don Walker's original orchestrations! And orchestration is my specialty, too!

    Well, now I've mentioned it. They were fantastic as always.