Who would have thought that the world's most famous tart would be so sweet? If you only know Fanny Hill as the titular heroine of John Cleland's mid-18th-century novel, or of a few forgettable films (the most recent from 1995), then you have yet to really meet her. Cross paths with her today, though, and you'll never forget her. Nancy Anderson ensures that.
On the simplest level, Anderson is starring as Fanny in Ed Dixon's fitful new musical adaptation of Cleland's book at the York Theatre Company. It's an understatement, though, to say she's merely playing Fanny. She becomes her, true, vanishing bodice over bloomers into the strangely innocent girl who sleeps her way to fame, fortune, and the top of London's social stratosphere. But any actress worth her salt could do that.
What sets Anderson apart is her ability to redefine for today the inimitable star power that once drove musicals but is now generally relegated to the backseat. She bears the effortless grace that genuine stars use to coddle and caress audiences, to make each and every person in the house feel she's speaking and singing to them alone. Whether quiet and contemplative or manic and mischievous, Anderson sells herself to you with no less enthusiasm than Fanny might (if, of course, in a different way.)
She's inescapably modern, yet inarguably of the show's era (1750). She fills out - body and soul - the luscious period costumes from Michael Bottari and Ronald Case, looking as though she stepped straight from a 19th-century daguerreotype. There isn't, however, a trace of sepia in Anderson's portrayal: From the frightened, sensuous joys of her first sexual experience to heartbreak and eventual triumph and financial security and long-lasting romance, she displays every color in the spectrum.
The same, however, cannot be said of the rest of the show, which feels as though it were cast entirely in black, white, and drab greys. Nothing Dixon has written, and everything here is his except for the orchestrations (they're by Nick DeGregorio), feels of the present moment or relevant to it. Dixon's Fanny Hill is a 21st-century exhumation of English ballad opera, so authentic in sound and feel that it seems the product of a jesting cynic who penned it to demonstrate why John Gay's hit parade is so seldom revived.
This is a show that draws its laughs from lines like "The vagaries of humanity are obviated to me" while paying homage to Broadway entries like The Producers and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with a theatrical self-awareness that roots it squarely in the square musical theatre of 2006. This is a show that tries to get away with rhyming "gentry" with "plenty" and "lover" with "mother." There's even a Gilbert and Sullivan parody for a group of sailors that might have been dropped from H.M.S. Pinafore during out-of-town tryouts.
Director James Brennan does nothing to discourage these associations. Nor does he reclaim the risqué spirit of Cleland's novel, which has managed to get it banned at each of its popular resurgences (including in the 1960s). Aside from the pointedly phallic buttresses and revolving staircases of Bottari and Case's set, this is the cleanest telling of this story imaginable. Even the madam and employees of the brothel in which Fanny lands (and re-lands several times) are squeaky clean enough to be your cookie-baking neighbors down the street.
Patti Allison almost thaws out the room with the score's one marginally ribald entry, "Every Man in London," which encompassed the entire stage and most of the audience. David Cromwell plays a succession of lecherous, wealthy, and ancient patrons, and delivers the show's choicest laughs. The supporting talent, like Emily Skinner as an ever-hopeful maid and Gina Ferrall as Fanny's German coworker, nicely round out the impressive but tragically underutilized cast.
Tony Yazbeck does stand out as Fanny's primary paramour, Charles, bringing a light manner, a robust voice, and plaintive likeability of his own to an otherwise skimpy role. To his credit (and the audience's relief), he doesn't have to work as hard as most of his castmates to uncover unwilling laughs.
That, like everything else, comes naturally to Anderson. She's an excellent singer, a fine dancer (with showstopping legs), and a crack comic - in short, the quintessential creature of the stage. As she struts, prances, dances, and flagrantes through Fanny's myriad adventures in the bedroom (and, occasionally, outside it), she time and again stakes her rightful claim as a true people's triple threat, a Marilyn Miller for the new millennium.
That she's a deserving member of that exclusive pantheon of current talents (including Audra McDonald and Kristin Chenoweth) who hearken back to an earlier age, when no artificial amplification or computerized stagecraft could come between performer and audience, won't surprise connoisseurs of the contemporary musical. They've spotted her jazzing up supporting roles in A Class Act and Wonderful Town and high-impact, low-profile leads in Jolson and Company and the ill-fated first version of the Doctor Dolittle tour, just waiting for her Big Moment to arrive. They - and she - need wait no longer.