April 10, 2010

"Anyone Can Whistle" Hits the Right Notes

Thursday is usually the opening night for the Encores! concert musicals at City Center.  But the most prized ticket is for the Wednesday night dress rehearsal. The scene outside City Center for those performances is abuzz with people air-kissing and back-thumping one another, trading news about their next gig or eyeing the famous faces who turn out to cheer on their pals in the show. The scene inside is just as electric with lots of loud and enthusiastic applause.

But everything seemed turned up a notch this past Wednesday because the show was Anyone Can Whistle, infamous for being Stephen Sondheim’s biggest flop (it ran just 9 performances, in April, 1964). Diehard musical fans are always arguing that Encores! should do shows that have little chance of being done anywhere else.  Anyone Can Whistle fits the bill to a T.  Sondheim’s score is sublime but Arthur Laurent’s book is ridiculous. I’m happy to report that the Encores! production leans more towards the former.

The plot, concocted in the Sixties when it was hip to think that madness and genius (or at least the giddiness of liberation) were synonymous, is too silly to recount in full but it involves the “Mayoress” of a financially distressed town and her corrupt henchman, the nearby insane asylum and its loony inmates and staff, and a purportedly magic rock that promises to be a moneymaking tourist attraction on the edge of town. 

Angela Lansbury played the mayor in the original production, Lee Remick was a nurse from the asylum and Harry Guardino the newcomer who’s just arrived in town. This time around, those roles are played by Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster and Raúl Esparza, each performing at the top of her or his game, giving the show the elevated air of a round of handball on Mount Olympus.  And providing another reason to wonder how it could be that none of these folks is currently working in a Broadway musical.  (Click here to read an New York Times interview about the show with Murphy or here to read one in Time Out New York with Esparza). 

But I think the biggest hurrah may have to go to director Casey Nicholaw.  Although book adapter David Ives deserves a noisy shout out too. They pretty much allow the show’s tangled set-up to unfold in the first act (I gave up trying to follow what was happening and started thinking about where my husband K and I might eat when the show was over). But things change for the much better after the intermission break. 

Nicholaw and Ives downplay the book and turn the second act into a marvelous song and dance fest, freeing their actors—and the audience—to just have a good time.  Easy to do since the songs—“Come Play Wiz Me,” “A Parade in Town,” “Everybody Says Don’t,” “I’ve Got You to Lean On,”  “With So Little to Be Sure Of” and, of course, “Anyone Can Whistle”—are as terrific a lineup as you’ll find in any musical.  I haven’t been able to get them of my head—and I haven’t wanted to.

Since The Encores! Orchestra  (fabulous, as always) traditionally sits right on stage, dance numbers tend to look awkward during these shows but Nicholaw has figured out how to make his work.  And he's hired a great ensemble of dancers to perform them. Almost every other number is a show stopper. 

You should hustle to get a ticket because the run ends tomorrow night and the chances of a transfer are slim to none. But in case you can’t get here, or they're sold out, or you just want to savor it all again, here's a Broadway.com trailer that gives you a taste of the show:

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