Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Anyone Can Whistle
Ravinia Festival

Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone and Company
In April 1995, Anyone Can Whistle was rescued from oblivion through a high profile, one-night-only benefit concert performance at Carnegie Hall. Bernadette Peters, Scott Bakula and the late Madeleine Kahn headlined alongside narrator Angela Lansbury. Since then, it has been performed only a few times per year, mostly by schools or Sondheim-enthusiast regional companies. Considered a problematic show because of its book (by Arthur Laurents), Whistle has never received a major theatrical revival, nor was it included in the Kennedy Center's 2002 Sondheim Celebration retrospective. The August 26-27 production this past weekend by the Ravinia Festival was the first since the Carnegie Hall event to feature a high-wattage cast. With Audra McDonald singing Fay, Michael Cerveris as Hapgood and Patti LuPone as Cora, under the musical direction of Paul Gemignani and with Sondheim himself in attendance, Whistle's underrated score received a historic performance, ranking alongside those of the original Broadway and Carnegie Hall casts. What distinguished it from the earlier casts is that the leads of this production are all legitimately singer-actors while most of the previous leads (Harry Guardino, Lee Remick, Ms. Lansbury, Ms. Kahn and Bakula) can fairly be called singing actors. As in Ravinia's four previous Sondheim productions, performance of the music was the first priority.

Audra McDonald, who can apparently win Tony Awards without breaking a sweat (four of them to date), delivered a performance in this show that would surely win her a nomination if she had performed it on Broadway. Her determined, principled and lonely Nurse Fay Apple delivered her big "long and loud" monologue with power and humor, following it with a hopeful "There Won't Be Trumpets" that confirmed our expectations for a very special evening. McDonald used her comic gifts to good effect when Fay poses as a French inspector and attempts to seduce Cerveris' character in "Come Play Wiz Me," and shortly thereafter broke our hearts with the title song.

Cerveris, whose stature as premier Sondheim leading man was established by his Tony win for Assassins and his television performance in Passion, holds on to his crown quite easily with this performance. Refreshingly, we got to see him play a happy and well-adjusted if legally insane character this time, rather than one of the tormented souls of Assassins, Passion, and Sunday in the Park with George. Sporting a Mike Meyers look-alike wig, Cerveris goes positively goofy as Hapgood, having fun with "Simple" while delivering a relaxed but sincere rendition of "Everybody Says Don't" - the song popularized by Barbra Streisand which along with the title number may be two of the best songs ever written for the musical theater. Cerveris found a way to make this underwritten character work. He avoided the temptation to make Hapgood a latter-day Harold Hill or any type of traditional leading man, but instead a warm and funny scamp who relishes the opportunity to make mischief for the corrupt Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper and her coterie of scoundrels. Vocally, he had a tonal color and a confident delivery that certainly surpassed the recorded performances of the vocally stressed Harry Guardino on the Original Cast Recording and the perfectly fine singing-actor performance by Bakula at Carnegie Hall.

Ms. LuPone, who surprised many with the intensity of her Fosca in Passion (which originated at Ravinia before its nationally-televised reprise at Lincoln Center), got to sing and dance the sort of loud, brassy and comic role with which we tend to associate her. "Me and My Town," with Cora accompanied by four tuxedo-clad "boys," was an homage to the nightclub acts of Kay Thompson, a popular nightclub singer of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s whose songs Sondheim pastiches in some of Cora's numbers. Whistle gives her a bunch of fast and funny numbers —"The Miracle Song," in which she sings and dances the ensemble in celebration of the her faked miracle; and "I've Got You to Lean On," another nightclub style number sung with the corrupt city government officials Schub, Cooley and Magruder. LuPone belted out the brassy "A Parade in Town" —a song that is pure Sondheim in its ironic juxtaposition of Cora's resentment at Hapgood's usurping of her popularity with a peppy, major-key march. LuPone and McDonald slyly played up the duplicitous tendencies of female relationships with "There's Always a Woman," in which Cora and Fay complain and plot against each other while being all sweetness on the surface. It seems Ms. LuPone could have been even more of a clown and found greater irony in her pompous Mayoress, but vocally, she delivered the goods in a part that's perfect for her.

Director Lonny Price packaged all this in an energetic and zany production, using a color scheme of red, white and blue (in designs by costumer Tracy Christensen, lighting by Kevin Adams and sets by James Noone) that established a visual feel akin to that of a political cartoon. An ensemble of thirty-three, all members of Ravinia's Sandra K. Crown Program for American Musical Theater, provided rich choral work and slickly performed the ample and inventive choreography of Marla Lampert. Price had the 22-piece orchestra on stage right, leaving the remainder of the stage available for the fully staged production he delivered.

It would be hard to find many who would say that Anyone Can Whistle ever works very well dramatically, though, and for a variety of reasons this production probably won't do much to enhance its reputation as a piece of theater. Its story —in which a corrupt local government of a bankrupt town fakes a miracle to attract tourism —is all over the board in the targets of its satire. While there's a recently revised script (by Laurents and Michael Michetti) that was developed for a 2002 Los Angeles production that is a little tighter and clearer, the truncated concert script used here does little more than set up the songs. (The narration included in the concert version added little, in part due to the apparent lack of preparation by narrator John Mahoney. He did better on Saturday night than Friday, having had the benefit of reading the script at least once before the Saturday performance).

Some of the directorial concepts used here by Price only added to the confusion. Most problematically, he casts Cora's cohorts Schub, Cooley and Magruder as the Marx Brothers, mimicking their voices, mannerisms and costumes. While I'm all in favor of anything that helps to immortalize the brilliant Marx Brothers, and while the idea may have helped to establish a tone of zaniness for this production, Price's choice works against the ideas of the piece. Anyone familiar with the Marx Brothers will know that their characters were outsiders, anarchically attacking the establishment. Comptroller Schub, Treasurer Cooley and Police Chief Magruder, together with Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper are the establishment. I would guess that anyone who didn't recognize the Marx Brothers would be a little confused. For what it's worth, though, Jerry Galante as Cooley did a great impression of Chico. The temptation to look to films of the ‘30s and ‘40s is understandable —Anyone Can Whistle's plot owes a great deal to films of Frank Capra in which an idealistic outsider (James Stewart or Gary Cooper) enlists the aid of a strong woman (Jean Arthur or Barbara Stanwyck) to fight the establishment —but Price put the Marx Brothers on the wrong team. It doesn't help either that this show business reference is mixed in with unrelated references to Kay Thompson and Mike Meyers. The libretto is confused enough as it is without complicating it further.

Price's idea to use the "red state/blue state" division of the U.S. here doesn't entirely work, either. He initially dresses the "cookies" —patients of "Dr. Detmold's Asylum for the Socially Pressured" - in blue and the townspeople in red. After the "cookies" escape and hide among the non-hospitalized townspeople they're all in red, so they blend in. Hapgood, who arrives in the town and is mistakenly believed to be a new psychiatrist, divides everyone into two groups —"Group A" and "Group 1". They begin to oppose each other, but since they remain all dressed in red the comparison to our current red and blue state rivalry is lost.

Still, one has to admire Price's ability to make concert presentations that are so satisfying musically, but also succeed so well as theatrical pieces. We also acknowledge that the constraints of one or two-night events like these concerts don't allow the opportunity to try out ideas in front of an audience before opening the show to the media.

Judging from comments made by Sondheim and Ravinia CEO Welz Kaufman at a public talk before the Friday night performance, it seems a safe bet that the Sondheim series, originally planned to conclude with this production, will continue for the foreseeable future. Let's hope they do. After starting with a restaging of the LuPone/George Hearn Sweeney Todd that Kaufman produced while he was at the New York Philharmonic, Ravinia has given us an additional four original productions that have been truly remarkable. They followed Sweeney with an exceptional Night Music featuring LuPone and Hearn as well as Zoe Caldwell and Marc Kudisch, that must surely rank among the finest productions of the piece ever. The third year's show, Passion, has had a life after Ravinia, with its PBS telecast earning acclaim and probably recognition as one of the best interpretations of the piece. Last year's Sunday in the Park with George was an amazing demonstration of its score's strength. This year's production of Anyone Can Whistle was another one for the history books. It should be preserved, at least through an audio recording, so a wider audience can hear the brilliant score sung by such brilliant singers.

Anyone Can Whistle was performed at the Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, Illinois on August 26 and 27, 2005.

Photo: Jim Steere

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