Monday, 13 February 2017

Review Anyone Can Whistle

Anyone Can Whistle
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents

You Just Put Your Lips Together And Blow

Taken at its simple level, the plot of 1964 musical Anyone Can Whistle sounds like it could be a lost Preston Sturges satire. An American town has fallen on hard times.

There's a drought, the factory has closed, the mayoress's unpopularity is at an all-time high and the most flourishing business in town is the local lunatic asylum.

In the midst of the economic slump and adverse weather conditions, the mayoress and her cohorts concoct an elaborate scam to turn their town into the American equivalent of Lourdes.

A magical stream of water suddenly spouting from a rock with the aim of attracting tourist pilgrims and revitalising the factory as a "miracle water" bottling factory.

In practice, it became one of Stephen Sondheim's and Arthur Laurents's worst received musicals running for just nine days and seeing it, it's not hard to tell why.

Instead of sticking to the basic story, it feels like a piece where intertextuality has gone - well - mad. Or maybe a musical which, while musically experimental, feels as if it is equally a testing board for the stories of several potential musicals drawing on the successful plays and musicals of previous years.

All it needs are a couple of characters called Steve Sondheim and Artie Laurents squabbling over which story to use and maybe it would turn into a piece called something like - oh we dunno - Work in Progress ...

The Union Theatre production directed by Phil Willmott is efficient without doing anything to  bring clarity to a piece which may be about political and show business confusion but needs something more to sort it out.

Acoustically speaking, Oliver Stanley as the hapless "practising idealist" Hapgood, a new quixotic patient who masquerades as a doctor, seems to find the correct volume in the Union space.

Rachel DeLooze's Nurse Faye Apple, who falls in love with the new medic and determines to expose the fraud, sings Anyone Can Whistle touchingly and brings a sense of energy and fun in her own French disguise in "Come Play Wiz Me". But sometimes words are lost.

We did wonder also whether a race element to the musical was played down. Certainly a bit of research revealed that one of the patients/citizens Martin was originally meant to be played by a black actor (even if we did enjoy Mitchell Lathbury's performance).

But some of Nurse Apple's lyrics as well could take on a different resonance with a black actress in the role as would the kiss with Hapgood. Having said that, Barbara Streisand was originally mooted for the role in the first 1964 production which was eventually taken by Lee Remick.
As regards the intertextuality, on the plus side Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Felicity Duncan) parades like Hello Dolly's Dolly Levi gone rogue. But then, uh-oh, there's a look back to Gypsy, the embryo of a St Bernadette story, a touch of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, more than a tad of the whimsy and politics of Finian's Rainbow,  a sudden short lived comparison to the opening of the Suez Canal (?!!!).

Are there also gestures towards Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar? And then  Maurice Maeterlinck's The Bluebird seems to pop up and also Noel Coward's medley of one-act plays Tonight At 8.30.

They line up like coralled citizens and psychiatric patients in Anyone Can Whistle. Then there are the plethora of themes:  a political subtext touching on the US electoral system, the invidious position of those caught up in the change of policy towards the Soviet Union triggered by the Cold War and even a nuts and bolts injunction to "tear up the records" adding to the mix. 

Mind you, Dr Detmold (Richard Foster King) of the Cookie Jar, the mental home for the socially pressured, does say at one point he's writing a story, so maybe the Sondheim/Laurents characters are there piled into one character.

This doesn't make the book any less muddled. As one song goes: "Who is who?/Which is who?/Who is what? Which is who?"

Having said that, the choreography by Holly Hughes, considering the small space, is pretty spectacular combining in minature the balletic vibe of Carousel with the verve of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers - we really can't help joining in the references to other works! And the three-strong band of electric guitar, drums led by Richard Baker on piano feels spot on.

This could well have been the pathway to more successful musicals by Sondheim in other collaborations and also ahead of its time in that politically driven psychological strategies of confusion are now arguably exposed for all to see.  But it is difficult to argue that folks will want to flock to see a plain weird piece of musical theatre.

It has its moments with the songs There Won't Be Trumpets and  Anyone Can Whistle, so it's an amber light for a piece which has proved a hard nut to crack even for Sondheim and Laurents - who was the first production's director - themselves.  Oh and in case you don't recognize the quote in our strapline, we just can't resist giving a link to a strangely apt Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart scene from To Have and To Have Not.

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