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Anyone Can Whistle

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 11, 2022

Elizabeth Stanley and Santino Fontana
Photo by Nina Westervelt
There was a parade in town last night. It was viewed by the audience at Carnegie Hall, a sold-out concert version of the Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents musical Anyone Can Whistle. The show, which has lived on in multiple recordings and periodic concerts ever since its extremely short-lived original (and thus far only) fully staged Broadway production in 1964, remains as musically compelling and thoroughly confusing as ever. The Carnegie Hall production was presented by the symphonic choir MasterVoices under the direction of Ted Sperling, with the lead roles performed by a game and splendid cast of Broadway names and delightfully narrated by Joanna Gleason.

Vanessa Williams gave a sultry, seductive twist to the role of Cora Hoover Hooper, the mayor (pardon, the "mayoress," as she insists) of an unnamed town, a thoroughly rundown place where the "stores are for rent" and "theaters are dark," and where "everyone in it would like to get out." It would take a miracle to turn things around, and so she turns to her cronies Comptroller Schub (Douglas Sills), Treasurer Cooley (Eddie Cooper), and Police Chief Magruder (Michael Mulheren) to see to it that a miracle happens. That is one thread of a convoluted plot.

A second thread is related to the local mental asylum, the "Cookie Jar," whose patients are referred to as "Cookies." The "Cookies" are all let loose to visit the site of a miracle (a "shrine" modeled on the one at Lourdes, where "holy water" flows freely), and no one can figure out how to separate the sane from the insane. There's probably no reason to, given the overall makeup of the town's residents and its leaders. But the presence of the "Cookies" among the paying pilgrims to the fake shrine threatens to ruin everything when so many will obviously not be cured. Just in the nick of time, in pops one "Dr. J. Bowden Hapgood" (Santino Fontana, a delightful charmer). He is quickly appointed to separate out the sane from the insane, which he claims to be able to do through a process of placing everyone either in Group A or Group 1. Though, when all is said and done, it is impossible to tell one group from the other.

Meanwhile, thread number three. In the midst of this labyrinthine story, there exists a separate, if neurotic, romantic comedy of the sort that existed in many musicals of the era (e.g. Subways Are for Sleeping or Flora the Red Menace). In Anyone Can Whistle, the quirky romance is between Hapgood and the generally uptight "Cookie Jar" nurse, Fay Apple (Elizabeth Stanley, luminous). The production broke out of the restrictive bounds of the concert format whenever Fontana and Stanley performed, alone or together, and Ms. Stanley was swept up in extended applause when she sang the title song, "Anyone Can Whistle." It is not possible to hear that number without thinking of the late Stephen Sondheim, and it was the evening's breakout performance.

Ted Sperling was on hand to conduct the musicians and the MasterVoices singers, who gave lively heft to the memberships of Group A and Group 1. JoAnn M. Hunter choreographed the evening, including the splendid "Cookie Chase." Alas, this was a singular event, with no announced plans to bring it back for another evening. Still, you never know; miracles occasionally do happen!