Anyone Can Whistle at the Prince Music Theater
For almost as long as I've been a fan of musicals, I've been a fan of Anyone Can Whistle. When I was a teenager I heard a broadcast on public radio that featured a recording of Stephen Sondheim singing the hauntingly beautiful title number from this 1964 show. I was immediately enthralled by it. I couldn't believe how much Sondheim was able to say about the human condition in a sparse, two-minute ballad.
Not long after that I checked out the record section of my local library and found it only had two or three Broadway cast albums - but one of them was Anyone Can Whistle. I played it several times, and even though some of the songs were puzzling, I found the whole album fascinating. Yet one question hung over me whenever I listened to it: How could a show with songs as good as this be such a flop on Broadway, closing after only nine performances?
Now, two decades after I first heard the score, and four decades after the show's debut, I've finally had the chance to see Anyone Can Whistle onstage, thanks to its new production at the Prince Music Theater. And now I know why the original production closed so quickly: It's a lousy show. Not a horrible show, by any means - it's a show with a lot of great ideas and a lot of moments that made me smile. But the book - a cynical satire of society's norms of conformity, written by Arthur Laurents - never quite works. And the stodgy, clunky production at the Prince will do nothing to improve its reputation.
The show opens with Cora Hoover Hooper, mayor of the heartland hamlet of Hooperville, looking to do anything she can to rescue her town from bankruptcy and restore its reputation (and her political career). Her aides come up with a sure-fire plan: staging a fake miracle (making water seem to spring from a rock by hiding a pump under it). They charge admission to the "miraculous" fountain, but when Nurse Fay Apple shows up with a group of her patients from the local mental asylum who want to be cured by the waters, things go awry. The patients escape into the populace (and into the theater audience!), and it's up to the city officials and the psychiatrists to determine which people are sane and which should be locked up.
Assistance soon arrives in the person of J. Bowden Hapgood, of whom one of the other characters says, "If he weren't a psychiatrist, I would swear he knows what he's doing." Hapgood's plan to determine which people are the patients doesn't help - he separates everyone into either "Group A" or "Group One," and there's no way to tell which group is crazy and which is, well, like the rest of us. After all, aren't we all a little ... well, you know.
This plot has the makings of a hilarious poke in society's eye. But most of Laurents' jokes fall flat, and they make the same obvious points over and over again. When the digs at our concepts of sanity get tiresome, Laurents has more points to make about capitalism, politics, McCarthyism and way too many other targets. Narrowing the focus - or giving us more characters we could care about, rather than cartoonish symbols - would have helped a lot.
The Prince's production is directed by Charles Gilbert, a longtime Sondheim associate whose 1978 show Assassins inspired Sondheim to write a show on the same subject. (Gilbert also co-wrote the Prince's disappointing Gemini, the Musical earlier this season.) The decision to include an onstage, 18-piece orchestra (well-conducted by Sam Davis) was a good one, but that is the only staging decision here that helps the show.
Things start out on a bad foot in the opening number, "Me and My Town." Jane Summerhays brings a nice comic touch to her role as the mayor, but the number surrounds her with three sidekicks who look uncomfortable and move like they'd just learned the dance steps five minutes before the show. Later in act one, Nurse Fay does her big number, "There Won't Be Trumpets," standing completely still at one side of the stage, robbing it of any excitement. She and Hapgood sing other songs ("Everybody Says Don't," "See What It Gets You" and the title tune) with a little more movement than that, but not much. Act two brings a long ballet, "The Cookie Chase," in which the patients are captured one by one and brought back to the mental ward - but there's no wit at all, and everyone goes through the motions so lazily that the whole number runs out of steam.
Who is responsible for such horrible choreography? Beats me - there is no choreographer credited in the program.
As Hapgood, Chuck Wagner delivers the show's best performance. He seems to delight in the absurdities of his character, and his voice is strong and clear. He delivers "Everybody Says Don't" and "With So Little To Be Sure Of" with a lot of gusto.
At the performance I attended (and for many of the performances in the run), leading lady Crista Moore was out sick, and the role of Fay Apple was played by Taryn Cagnina, a senior at the University of the Arts. Cagnina reportedly learned the part on short notice last week and should be commended for jumping in to such a big role. Unfortunately, she's in way over her head. Her singing voice is tentative; she sometimes sings behind the beat, and never holds high, long notes as long as she should. Her speaking voice is flat and uninteresting as well. Cagnina does come to life late in act one, during scenes in which Fay Apple puts on a red wig, a tight red dress and a French accent to pose as "Ze Lady from Lourdes"; Cagnina seems to be having fun with the disguise, and her love scenes with Wagner have a nice sparkle. But when she takes off the wig, she takes off the accent, too, and her performance becomes dreary and monotonous again.
The production has almost no sets; the only major piece of scenery is the ornate gate to the asylum, which is lowered on wires from the rafters. Those wires kept shaking for most of the night, making the gates shake with them. It was a horrible distraction.
Fortunately, almost none of this gets in the way of enjoying Sondheim's score, which is one of his most adventurous and entertaining. He manages to mix together tender ballads like "With So Little to Be Sure Of" and thrilling marches like "A Parade in Town." There are also two long, audacious set pieces - "Simple" and "The Cookie Chase." Each lasts around 10 minutes and combines exciting melodies with harsh dissonance, foreshadowing Sondheim's breakthrough musicals of the 1970s. And then there is the inventive wordplay which has become one of his trademarks, already in full bloom this early in his career.
However, all of that is displayed to much better effect on the original cast album, available on CD. This production only improves on that album in one way: by giving us Chuck Wagner, a leading man with a much better voice than original star Harry Guardino. Unless you're a diehard fan of Wagner, you'll be better off buying the CD than seeing Anyone Can Whistle onstage and experiencing a heartbreaking disappointment.
Anyone Can Whistle runs through Sunday, February 6. Ticket prices range from $30 to $52 and student tickets are $24 and may be purchased by calling the Prince Music Theater box office at 215-569-9700, in person at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, or online at www.princemusictheater.org.
Book by Arthur Laurents