Sitting and watching the recent Encores
production of Anyone
Can Whistle, it was often difficult to imagine how the original Broadway
production could ever have been a
nine-performance flop in 1964. But it was a flop, and a rather legendary one at that. I think it was Ethan Mordden who once quipped that if everyone who claimed that they had seen Anyone Can Whistle had actually seen it, the show would still be running.
But the score to Anyone Can Whistle has since become greatly admired, particularly among Sondheim aficionados. There was a great deal of excitement leading up to the Encores production -- particularly when it was announced that Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster, Raúl Esparza would head the cast -- and I'm happy to say that the production didn't disappoint. In fact, it was the best thing I've ever seen at Encores. (Before you ask, here are the Encores shows that I have personally seen: No, No, Nanette, Juno, Damn Yankees, On the Town, Music in the Air, Finian's Rainbow, The Wiz, Girl Crazy, Fanny and Anyone Can Whistle.)
Typically, Encores cuts down the librettos for its shows, sometimes to a detrimental extent, as was the case with Finian's Rainbow and Juno. But in the case of Anyone Can Whistle, they were doing the show a huge favor, paring down Arthur Laurents' ridiculous, confusing, and self-indulgent book to an absolute minimum, and giving Stephen Sondheim's glorious score a chance to shine.The score contains some of Sondheim's most interesting, moving, and ambitious work, including the soaring ballad "With So Little to Be Sure of," the rousing "Everybody Says Don't," and what is perhaps the best song in the show, "A Parade in Town." Sure, there are some clunkers, including the awkward "See What it Gets You." But one the whole, it's one of Sondheim's best scores, and when you're talking about the big S, that's saying something.
Pulling off Anyone Can Whistle can be a very challenging task indeed, and requires a director with a very sure hand. Fortunately, the folks at Encores brought in Casey Nicholaw. (Admittedly, Nicholaw's most recent gig was the poorly received and early-closing All About Me, but hey even Fosse and Bennett had their misfires.) Nicholaw brings a fast pace and a consistent tone to the show, and also does a masterful job staging the songs, particularly the two extended sequences, "Simple" and "The Cookie Chase."
Anyone Can Whistle also depends on very strong and appropriate casting choices, and here, as elsewhere, this production did not disappoint. Sutton Foster was her perky, spunky, funny self, and Raúl Esparza was his sonorous, intense, and dynamic self. But as talented as the two performers are, and as well-suited for their roles as they were, they wound up coming off as merely competent in the shadow of the spectacular Donna Murphy. Murphy is not only letter-perfect as Cora, but I couldn't help thinking about the other roles that this amazingly talented woman has mastered, including Fosca in Passion, Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town, Anna Leonowens in The King and I, and Lotte Lenya in Lovemusik. Great honk, is there anything this woman can't do? My friend and fellow blogger Kevin over at Theatre Aficionado at Large has called Ms. Murphy "God's gift to musical comedy." I couldn't have said it any better.
A final note: Anyone Can Whistle is certainly a period piece, particularly in its decidedly '60s association of "crazy" with "nonconformist." Someone mentioned to me that Sondheim was speaking at a talk-back for the show and said that, in the original production, they didn't do a strong enough job of making the crazy/nonconformist distinction. I think it's more of a semantic issue. But even if the show *were* romanticizing mental illness, I'd be inclined to cut the creators some slack given that it was written 45 years ago. (I'm a bit less inclined to give certain Pulitzer Prize-winning musicals a bye is this regard. Stay tuned for my take on that recent, stunning development.)