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Anyone Can Whistle

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Donna Murphy
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

There may be no windmills, golden helmets, or Inquisitions, but 46 years - this week - after its Broadway bow and exit, Anyone Can Whistle is still first cousin to Man of La Mancha. Frantic love affairs based on intentionally mistaken identity, the blurring of every line between the sane and the mad, corrupt bureaucrats controlling through force and deception a populace that can't think for itself... If you didn't know this musical were written by Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim rather than Joe Darion, Mitch Leigh, and Dale Wasserman, on paper they'd be interchangeable.

On paper. As presented live, ostensibly anywhere but particularly through Sunday at City Center as part of the Encores! series, they're as different as hamburgers and sangria. But director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw proves conclusively with his work here that history has given each show what it most deserves: Man of La Mancha (which opened in 1965) worldwide audience adoration and, in "The Impossible Dream," a standard to end all standards; and Anyone Can Whistle initial critical and popular scorn but now grudging appreciation, a handful of dimly recalled songs, and one of the liveliest, most spit-polished Encores! outings in years.

That's plenty of reason to sit back and luxuriate, at least as much as possible, in this rocky-road collection of a couple of brilliant solos; some messy but fascinating ensemble numbers; and hair-tingling orchestrations (by the incomparable Don Walker, and given full voice by Rob Berman and the Encores! Orchestra) - all celli, woodwinds, and horns - that relish in Old Broadway even as everything else repudiates it. Glory, too, in an obscenely superlative cast led by Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster, and Raul Esparza that works so hard to make everything cohere that when it refuses you'll find yourself applauding your hands raw anyway.

Just refrain from looking too deep into the show, which bears the hallmarks of both its before-its-time initial upbringing (the infinitely more conventional Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, and High Spirits all opened around the same time) and the usual bugaboos of limited rehearsal time and "Concert Adaptation: David Ives." You'll be able to follow - barely - Laurents's story of Cora Hoover Hooper (Murphy), the mayor of a firmly failing town, who oversees a scheme to spur growth by pretending a local rock has sprouted water. This naturally brings out the crazies from Dr. Detmold's nearby sanitarium, though their nurse, Fay Apple (Foster), who's brought them to witness the miracle, prefers they be called cookies.

Sutton Foster and Raul Esparza
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It's not long before the cookies and the pilgrims (the mentally sound) become impossibly jumbled, leaving the sorting to Doctor J. Bowden Hapgood (Esparza), who arrives from out of town just in time: He, and he alone, can tell everyone apart: And if Group A and Group 1 look and act an awful lot alike, so what? There are far worse things than being unable to tell the twisted minds from the straight ones, especially when everyone who's really crooked is in the government.

Esparza, charismatic but bearing uncertain authority, is not an ideal Hapgood, but acts and sings with enough conviction to sell himself as a secretly idealistic rabble-rouser. The satin-suave Murphy injects Cora with gallons of greasy maternalism that makes her a villain you adore hating; she belts divinely, and looks typically bombshell-sexy in the glamorous finery that costume consultant Gregg Barnes has arranged for her. (Murphy's clothes and wig make her look quite a bit like the role's originator, Angela Lansbury.) If Foster could bring a touch more gentleness to the patiently anxious Fay, she's nonetheless an enlivening presence in a role that only really comes alive during its songs.

That's true of most of the performers - who also include Edward Hibbert, Jeff Blumenkrantz, and John Ellison Conlee as Cora's lackeys - and of the show itself. Laurents's book takes too many chances, its threadbare invention running thin soon after intermission. Fortunately, Sondheim - coming into his own here after a mixed success on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum - explores the pervasive shallowness to its fullest, most elaborate, and sometimes most confusing extent in a score that even today remains among his most distinct (if least disciplined).

Fay gets the most gleaming gems, in the fiery "There Won't Be Trumpets" and the imploring title song. But Cora delights with bluesy brass in numbers like the hip-swiveling "Me and My Town," the faux-fake-gospel "Miracle Song," and the mock-celebratory "A Parade in Town" and "I've Got You to Lean On." Hapgood, too, presides over a pair of classic numbers: the breathlessly inspirational "Everybody Says Don't" and the rambunctious musical scene "Simple," in which he attempts to properly separate the cookies and pilgrims.

It's with that number, at the end of the first act, that you sense the mid-30s Sondheim of 1964 developing the sound that over the next 15 years would lead to the likes of Company, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd. It's an engrossing musical scene, part antiquated-pop pastiche and part pre-post-modernism that ends with the cast perched on theatre chairs, cackling at what they perceive as a cookie-filled audience. The point is made, like so many here, with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel.

Like so much else here, "Simple" was a daring experiment ahead of its time for both its writer and audiences, and seeing it and everything else so tricked out is a living history lesson of the most enticing kind. You sense the electric possibility in the songwriting, even as its luminance sputters every other measure, and that carries you through a show that isn't sure how to be everything it believes it should be. That Anyone Can Whistle never totally found its way may have doomed it commercially, but also made it an Encores! natural and one of those shows that, flaws and all, is never afraid to embrace its own impossible dream.

Anyone Can Whistle
Through April 11
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: New York City Center

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