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Anyone Can Whistle

Anyone Can Whistle is the sort of show that should have been produced by Reprise. Its score is led by the poignant title number but also has several other terrific Sondheim tunes that deserve to be heard more often. However, the show is also hampered by a troublesome and dated book. Anyone Can Whistle would benefit from a production where it would come with an unspoken understanding that it is being revived for its score, not its book, and everyone can just ignore the fact that the plot doesn't altogether work.

Instead, Anyone Can Whistle has a newly revised book which is getting its U.S. premiere at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles, and the production carries with it a hope that perhaps the time is right for Anyone Can Whistle to have a successful life, maybe even in New York. The bad news is: it isn't. Anyone Can Whistle isn't this year's Chicago, a show that was ahead of its time when first produced but now fits the cynical times in which we live. Instead, Arthur Laurents' book, which may have been too edgy for 1964, now seems hopelessly dated as well as being downright messy.

Anyone Can Whistle
Ruth Williamson with Jay Willick, Joe Hart and Ira Denmark
The play is a mish-mash of plots: a delightful comedy about a money-grubbing mayor and her cronies lying to the town's populace to line their wallets; a biting satire about mindless conformity to social mores; a surprisingly gentle love story; and a story of the evolution of a woman who doesn't want to let herself believe in the possibility of any magic in life. Although the stories interact - the corrupt government leaders create a fake "miracle" in order to bring money to the town in the form of religious pilgrims; the woman wants to disprove the "miracle" but she needs a miracle to do it - the interaction is, for the most part, confusing and implausible, even for the fairy tale world in which the show takes place.

The biggest offender is the satirical subplot, which is highlighted by "Simple," an uncomfortably long number in which a fast-talking stranger convinces the entire town they've gone mad by confounding them with "Alice in Wonderland"-style paradoxes about their philosophy. Most of his arguments relate to things that are, thankfully, outdated - such as traditional gender roles, or racist beliefs. But the arguments are so outdated that they seem ridiculous. In 2003, it might be passé to even argue against political correctness; to argue against political incorrectness is laughable.

But the problems with the show's book aren't all matters of being dated. Some of the problems have to do with the way in which the story is told. The show starts with its feet firmly planted in the mayor's comedy; when it evolves into satire, we aren't entirely ready to go along on the surreal journey. And once we have reluctantly been taken into the crazy world of Anyone Can Whistle's doubletalk-filled criticism of the morality of 1964, the show's fast pace screeches to a surprising halt in order to set up something as delicate and introspective as the title song. If you walk into Anyone Can Whistle expecting a musical into which "Anyone Can Whistle" actually fits, you will be sorely disappointed. It is almost as if someone decided to plop the ballad in the middle of Urinetown and then see what happened.

But, if we can somehow overlook the book and consider this as a concert version (albeit a fully-staged one) of the musical, Anyone Can Whistle starts to look and sound a heck of a lot better. The best thing the production has going for it is Ruth Williamson as Cora Hoover Hooper the mayor - sorry, "the mayoress," a word on which Williamson extends the final sibilant sound because she likes how evil it tastes. Williamson is everything we want in a musical comedy villain. She's cold, sexy, a snappy dresser (in increasingly more ridiculous outfits, all in shades of pink), smarter than her toadies and, most important, she has a strong clear voice that is more than capable of handling her substantial share of the Sondheim score. What makes her even better is that she knows when to bring the faintest hint of pathos into her performance, making her rendition of "A Parade in Town" a true highlight of the show, not just a comic song about a petulant hustler who has been out-hustled, but one in which we think, just for a moment, about the woman who genuinely fears she has lost everything.

The show's young leads, Misty Cotton and John Bisom, have mixed results as the young woman and the stranger who may provide the miracle she needs. Cotton is tremendous with "There Won't Be Trumpets," her surprisingly optimistic anthem, and she is quite solid in her flirtatious numbers as well. But when she gets to the soul-baring moments of "Anyone Can Whistle," she doesn't quite connect with the piece. Part of this might be attributable to the arrangement, which sounds a tad too low for Cotton's range, and the nearly dirge-like pacing of the number, which overplays the emotions that are already present in the music and lyrics. (Cotton has much more luck with the uptempo reprise of the song in the second act.) Bisom has the look of fast-talking charismatic Hapgood down perfectly, and his grin goes a long way toward successfully charming everyone he has to charm. But he is only three-quarters of the way there - his talking needs a little more speed and intensity, his singing voice needs a little more power, and his very presence needs a little more eye-catching wattage, in order to be the captivating character he needs to be.

Production values are all solid, with the possible exception of ill-fitting costumes (the back of Cotton's red dress, for example, revealed the top of her slip). There is a great deal of wonderful misdirection in the show; director Michael Michetti has a magician's flair for directing the audience's eye where he wants it, so that a set or prop change happening in plain sight is completely missed. Evan Bartoletti's brightly-colored cartoony set is a co-conspirator in the deception, pulling off several cute transformations. Larry Sousa's choreography is bright and particularly effective in sequences in which dance is used to forward the comic plot.

There is so much to like about Anyone Can Whistle, it's frustrating that it isn't better overall. But, without dropping the social commentary subplot in its entirety, Anyone Can Whistle can never be more than great performances of great songs.

Anyone Can Whistle runs at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles through May 11, 2003. Performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. (818) 788-5659 or www.anyonecanwhistle.com.

Producer Carole Black in Association with Richard B. Warsk Presents Anyone Can Whistle. Book by Arthur Laurents; Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Michael Michetti; Choreography by Larry Sousa; Musical Direction Darryl Archibald; Scenic Design Evan Bartoletti; Lighting Design Steven Young, Lisa D. Katz; Costume Design A. Jeffrey Schoenberg; Sound Design Christopher Game; MakeUp, Hair & Wig Design Sugano; Production Stage Manager Amy E. Stoddard; Associate Director Susan Boulanger; Casting Director Michael Donovan, CSA; Publicist Onagan Entertainment.

Cast:
Peggy Billo - Mrs. Schroeder
John Bisom - J. Bowden Hapgood
Andrew Boyle - Sandwich Man
Misty Cotton - Nurse Fay Apple
T.J. Dawson - Deputy
Ira Denmark - Treasurer Cooley
Jennie Fahn - Baby Joan
Daniel Gibson - Martin
Joe Hart - Comptroller Schub
Roy Leake, Jr. - Dr. Detmold
Matthew McCray - John
Brittany Paige - June
Randi Pareira - Osgood
Sierra A.R. Rein - Lady Deputy
Virginia Weber - Drunken Nurse
Jay Willick - Chief of Police Magruder
Ruth Williamson - Cora Hoover Hooper
Paul Wong - George
Edward Asner - Narrator (Voiceover)

Photo by Ed Krieger


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- Sharon Perlmutter




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