Fanny Hill

The York Theatre Company, NYC - Feb. 2006

Reviewed by John Kenrick

Finally, a new musical for literate adults! At a time when Broadway is flooded with moronic juke box musicals and sanitized stage adaptations of well-known movies, it takes nerve to present a new tuner based on an infamous 256 year old novel. But that's what the York Theatre Company has done with Fanny Hill, a giddy tale of prostitution and love in 1700s London that gives contemporary audiences more bawdy, melodic fun than we've seen in many a season.

Mind you, I do not mean "bawdy" in the sense of "obscene," but rather in its alternate definition -- "boisterously or humorously indecent." This is most certainly not a show for children, but it handles sex with a forthright sense of fun that most open minded viewers will enjoy. Ed Dixon, whose solid acting talents have graced many a stage, has single-handedly adapted John Cleland's classic 1749 novel with wit, melodic variety, and a shameless stream of innuendo.

In case you are not familiar with the classic story, Fanny is an innocent country girl who comes to London in search of fortune, only to wind up laboring in the world's oldest profession. She finds love in the arms of a naive sailor, who is swept away, leaving her to fend for herself. By the time he returns (both wiser and a bit the worse for wear), Fanny has whored her way into the fortune she sought, and can share it with her beloved -- with each agreeing to ask no questions about what the other has been up to.

Like Candide and The Fantasticks, this show spoofs the often harsh process of losing one's innocence. The distant historical setting only makes it all the clearer how universal this experience is. We laugh because we've all been (or eventually shall be) there at some point in our lives, that moment when youthful illusion dies in the face of reality. The novel Fanny Hill is not an easy read today, but Dixon reframes it in readily accessible terms, balancing farce with just enough humanity to make that farce meaningful. He avoids the use of any vulgar language, allowing the pretensions of society to be the only real vulgarities on display. In truth, none of the new musicals on Broadway this season have shown a fraction of this much creativity and intelligence. Fanny Hill may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I would take it over ponderous bores like The Woman in White or The Color Purple any day.

James Brennan has staged the proceedings with great comic energy, making a small cast seem (you should pardon the expression) several times its actual size. Imagine nine people convincingly recreating the bustle of a London street! If at times it all seems a bit frenetic, I think that is part of the intended effect. Designers Michael Bottari and Ronald Case have provided a wondrous multi-level set and period-perfect costumes that aid and abet the action with style. Gerald Kelly's handsome wigs deserve special praise, making several quick changes of character all the more effective. Stan Tucker conducts with a sure hand, and Nick DiGregorio's intimate orchestrations invoke another age while providing solid support for the cast.

In the title role, Nancy Anderson shows why she is one of the brightest new lights in musical theatre today, making Fanny's journey from innocence to realism completely believable -- no small accomplishment. She also provides all the sex appeal and vocal richness any audience could ask for. If there is still room for stardom in this business, Ms. Anderson is a prime candidate for it. The handsome Tony Yazbeck is the perfect cohort as her clueless seafaring lover, a difficult role that he carries off with deceptive ease.

There is nothing deceptive about Patti Allison's performance as Mrs. Brown, the hard-nosed madam who drags Fanny Hill into a life of profitable sin. A veteran of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, Allison embodies the spirit of old London with raunchy brio, turning her solo lament about having "Every Man In London" into a show-stopping highlight. The rest of the cast doubles and even quadruples in a wide variety of roles. David Cromwell is a standout portraying Fanny's long line of aging suitors, Adam Monley scores points as a well-endowed servant, and Michael J. Farina wins laughs with a series of brief but well-polished supporting characters. Christianne Tisdale, Gina Ferrall and the divine Emily Skinner all have superb moments as Fanny's fellow working girls.

Musicals101's core belief is that good musicals have brains, courage and heart. Fanny Hill has all three qualities in refreshing abundance, offering grown-ups a sunny bit of intelligent fun in the midst of an otherwise chilly and witless theatrical winter.

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