Of all of Sondheim's Broadway musicals, Anyone Can Whistle is one of the most enigmatic. Closing after just nine performances, its original production in 1964 still managed to become the stuff of legend thanks to the original cast album, which documents the performances of that fine group of actors, including Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick. Yet the piece has never enjoyed a revival that has changed its fortunes. The score contains some of Sondheim's most beloved songs, including 'Everybody Says Don't', 'There Won't be Trumpets', 'There's a Parade in Town', 'Me and My Town' and 'With So Little to be Sure Of', and it works well in concert: a performance at Carnegie Hall featured Lansbury as Narrator, Bernadette Peters as Fay and Madeline Kahn as Cora, and was recorded for CD, while further concerts at the Ravinia Festival had Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald in an effective combination.
The show is now being revived at London's Jermyn Street Theatre by Primavera Productions, who also presented Sondheim's Saturday Night there last year. The same director, producer and musical director are behind the production, and the results provide a most welcome opportunity to see the piece on the London stage, even if the production is not wholly successful.
Anyone Can Whistle has a reputation for being let down by a weak book by Arthur Laurents (of West Side Story and Gypsy fame), but in truth I enjoyed Primavera's production more as a play than as a musical. Even if I don't agree with every decision, the show is so strongly directed and acted that it proves an absorbing experience. The musical elements are not so well attended to, however, and some of the numbers don't seem to be completely woven into the texture of the drama.
The show concerns a corrupt mayoress's attempts to save her bankrupt town by colluding in inventing a 'miracle' that brings in the tourist trade. Oppression and freedom, democracy and autocracy, and madness and insanity are juxtaposed throughout the show and create its tension. In particular, by presenting the inmates of the local asylum as healthier and more normal than the rest of the townspeople, the libretto asks who decides what 'sanity' really is, while we're also taught that the real miracle is 'being alive'.
Tom Littler's production underlines Whistle's indebtedness to the political musical theatre of Brecht and Weill, which serves the show's intensity well but makes it seem somewhat too much like something from 1930s Germany (an impression that's magnified by transporting the location from America to some kind of German dictatorship). In the absurdist scenes this is effective, but frequent references to American society in the libretto and score ('There Won't be Trumpets', for instance) mean that the teutonic feel of the production doesn't suit every scene. The show is well paced and the dialogue delivered with tautness and meaning, and I found much of the show genuinely gripping, but to tackle it from just one stylistic stance when the work has so many is ultimately only partly satisfying.
Nor is the music really delivered with complete conviction. Sondheim has commented that the whole show is built around the first two chords of the overture (a second and a fourth), so it was perhaps a mistake to cut it here. More importantly, though, the decision to use an actor-musician approach led, as so often in these types of productions, to a lack of colour and texture in the musical performance. A single oboe or violin played to a moderate standard inevitably lets down a production whose dramatic elements are professional, and since quite a lot of the score was mainly played on a keyboard, I can't help but feel that it would be better simply to employ a professional pianist and percussionist and let the actors do their job. And it has to be said, too, that little was done to incorporate the playing of the instruments into the drama, so I really don't know what was gained.
But the show is blessed by a strong ensemble and a particularly outstanding performance from its lead, Issy van Randwyck, as Cora. Although she was too demonised by the production for my taste, her glamour, rich speaking voice and arresting performances of her songs provided a focal point for the evening. Alistair Robins's Schub was also fine, and David Ricardo-Pearce was an appealing Hapgood, even if his singing wasn't particularly strong. Rosalie Craig's acting as Fay was intense and impressive, but for me her singing was a little too tight and overcooked given the material she has to sing (for instance, the title song). Praise is due, too, to Morgan Large's ingenious set, which was a fine background for the show but adapted cleverly for the bedroom scenes.
Overall, there is such a level of commitment from the entire cast that the opportunity to see one of Sondheim's most interesting shows is hugely welcome, regardless of its shortcomings.
Anyone Can Whistle runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 17 April 2009. For more information, see the show's website.
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