Everybody says don't...revive "Anyone Can Whistle." The book isn't right. The concept isn't nice. Don't disturb the peace...it has in the musical theater history books like Ken Mandelbaum's "Not Since Carrie."
I can't think of a better reason for City Center Encores! to exist than to perform Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents's flawed, frustrating, but intermittantly fantastic and absolutely fascinating 1964 flop musical. The fact that no other theater company would or could present the show with the same production values is what makes Encores! truly essential.
Compared with the other two productions of this season - a dreadfully miscast "Girl Crazy" and a respectable but lackluster "Fanny" - Casey Nicholaw's production of "Anyone Can Whistle" shines like a golden rainbow. (Good timing for Nicholaw too, who I suspect would like everyone to forget about his involvement with the recently shuttered two-diva travesty "All About Me.")
Am I saying that I think "Anyone Can Whistle" should transfer to Broadway. To be honest, at first I did, but for only about ten minutes. The orchestra opened the show on such a strong and jarring note with the "Prelude," followed by not one but two smashing numbers from Donna Murphy ("Me and My Town," "Miracle Song"). Murphy's ebullient performance as the shameless egotist Cora Hoover Hooper reminded me of the comedic brilliance she displayed in "Wonderful Town." Murphy's Cora is a power-hungry, ruthless viper on the level of Sarah Palin.
Once Sutton Foster, playing goodie-goodie nurse Fay Apple, entered the stage with her troupe of "cookies" (mental patients) demanding to take part in the mayoress's sham miracle of water coming out of a rock, I could see trouble on the horizon. From that point on, Laurents's book keeps spinning in new directions and taking on new targets for satire. By the end of Act One, after which Dr. Hapgood (Raul Esparza) has divided the crowd into Group 1 and Group A while making comments on nuclear war, the nature of reality, women's equality and racial assumptions, you feel dizzy and overwhelmed.
Unlike any past Encores! show I can think of, "Anyone Can Whistle" uses narrators in order to guide the audience through the dense plot. (Am I correct in assuming that no such narration took place in the 1964 production?) Further, Nicholaw stresses the weird, Pirandello-esque motif of the cast pretending that it is the audience and that the audience is the cast throughout the show, rather than just at the end of Act One, when the cast, sitting in rows of orchestra seats, suddenly applauds the audience.
To quote a far superior Sondheim show, I'm "sorry grateful" for the chance to see "Anyone Can Whistle" at Encores! Not having known the unnecessarily complicated libretto at all (just the basic plot), I had no idea how the songs fit into the story. Why does Fay break into "There Won't Be Trumpets"? Why does Hapgood sing "Everybody Says Don't"? But "Anyone Can Whistle" is only enjoyable when Laurents' dialogue stops and Sondheim's score takes over.
I can't of how "Anyone Can Whistle" could have been done any better short of completely rehauling and rewriting the book, which still probably wouldn't solve matters. The cast is absolutely first rate. In addition to the unstoppable, irreplaceable Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster gives a tender performance as Fay in which she gives shaded, nuanced interpretations of "There Won't Be Trumpets" and "Anyone Can Whistle." Meanwhile, the ever so intense Raul Esparza is perfectly suited to portray Hapgood's psychotic edge. But together, Foster and Esparza provide some authentically warm and pretty moments. Jeff Blumencrantz and Edward Hibbert provide additional laughs as two of the mayoress's cronies.
Another great delight involves Casey Nicholaw's elaborate staging of Act Two's long ballet sequence in which the "cookies" are locked up the town officials and then freed by Fay into the streets. And as always at Encores!, the orchestra, conducted by Rob Berman, couldn't be better.
Finally, let me stress that "Anyone Can Whistle" is probably the most significant birthday gift that Stephen Sondheim is going to receive. Sure, having a Broadway theater renamed in his honor is nice. But if it's only going to host Roundabout productions, is that really a good thing? And while all the benefit concerts and revues are enjoyable and well-intended, they just reinforce more of the same. Producing "Anyone Can Whistle" was a risky decision to delve into sticky, difficult material. (Would Encores! perhaps like to take a shot at "Merrily We Roll Along" next?)
Five years from now, no one will be listening to Andrew Lippa's score of "The Addams Family." 50 years from now, people will still be listening to "Anyone Can Whistle," marveling at its ballads, and wondering what went wrong. If you're around this weekend, go and see for yourself!