Anyone Can Whistle

NY City Center Encores - April 2010

Review by John Kenrick

The bad news about Anyone Can Whistle is that it is a preachy "message" musical, and the best of intentions cannot make up for its cartoonish, one-dimensional characters and a painful lack of human interest.  The good news is that, in the hands of the expert cast and creative team provided by Encores, Stephen Sondheim's challenging score rises far enough above the dismal Arthur Laurents libretto to give an audience more reasons to cheer than any new musical of the last few seasons.

It may seem blasphemous to call a libretto by Arthur Laurents "dismal," but let's be honest -- after his dazzling work on West Side Story and Gypsy, Laurents turned out a series of flop musical scripts. Instead of focusing on characters in a believable situation, Anyone Can Whistle labors to make one relentless point -- that in our crazy world, everyone is insane. (Even in 1964, this was a rather shopworn premise.) The major characters in Anyone serve intellectual functions, but never inspire genuine sympathy. Sondheim's songs, which include such moving gems as the heartfelt title tune and the soaring "There Won't Be Trumpets," only wind up seeming like they belong to another, far stronger script. Small wonder that these songs have found their widest audience in reviews (such as the long running Side by Side by Sondheim) and cabaret acts, where they are liberated from the pretentious mess of their original text.

Director Casey Nicholaw kept the action astoundingly clear in this fast-moving staging, and energized the endless second act with a sensational "Cookie Chase" ballet. He also made the most of an amazingly gifted cast.  Donna Murphy gave a breathtakingly hilarious performance as Cora Hoover Hooper, the dictatorial mayor of a town so impoverished that it's only successful business is a small asylum. Murphy and a quartet of back-up singers invoked images of Kay Thompson's snazzy nightclub routines, turning the bouncy "Me and My Town" into a surprise show-stopper. As a nurse at the local asylum, Sutton Foster ranged between icy efficiency and bogus sexual bravado -- she has never looked or sounded better, and that's saying a lot for this lovely, gifted lady. Raul Esparza did a masterful playing the thankless roe of J. Bowden Hapgood with a delightful edge of madness with plenty of method in it.  His rendition of "Everybody Says Don't" was a master class in performance technique, starting small and building to an emotional climax, and finally giving this song the kind of impact it should always have but rarely has. Jeff Blumenkrantz was a droll Treasurer Cooley, and the always marvelous Edward Hibbert was a comic delight as the town's ruthless Controller Shub.

Rob Berman and the Encores Orchestra are much loved by fans of this series, and they outdid themselves this time around. They performed Sondheim's challenging score (in Don Walker's glorious original orchestrations) with extraordinary polish. A large contingent of Encores regulars always stick around to applaud the orchestra after the exit music -- well this time around, there was a well-earned cheer for these gifted musicians, who are such a crucial part of what makes Encores matter.

Between a new revue of his songs, the hit return of West Side Story, a classy revival of A Little Night Music, and this first-rate concert staging of Anyone Can Whistle, the New York theatre world has given Stephen Sondheim one hell of a celebration for his eightieth year -- which, truth to tell, is only fitting for this monumental talent.

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