Sunday, May 01, 2005

Anyone Can Whistle (Willoughby Fine Arts)

‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE’ gets vaiant try at Willoughby Fine Arts

When the Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Lareunts musical ‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE,’ which is now on stage at Willoughby Fine Arts Association, opened on Broadway in 1964 it was an instant flop. It was met with devastating reviews. The New York Times said, "There is no law against saying something in a musical, but it's unconstitutional to omit imagination and wit.” The show ran only 9 performances.

The musical was Sondheim's second solo effort. After being so successful with ‘A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM,’ and having been hailed as Broadway’s new “wunderkindt” for his work on ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ and “GYPSY,’ the negative reactions to ‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE’ were extremely surprising.

Sondheim's score is a quirky blend of dissonant music which is hard to perform and sing and often hard for the audience to listen to. His musical choice was probably to parallel the discordant thoughts and idea of the characters. Unfortunately, since the plot doesn’t work well, neither does the music.

Sondheim is noted for having one marvelous song in each of his shows. Think “Send in the Clowns” from ‘A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC’ or “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from ‘GYPSY.’ There is no such song in ‘WHISTLE.’ The score contains such unremembered tunes as "Me and My Town", "Everybody Says Don't", and "With So Little to Be Sure Of." Interestingly, “There Won’t Be Trumpets’ which became a big cabaret favorite, was part of the original score, but was cut before the show opened. (The WFAA production has reinserted the song.)

Despite the flop status, there is a cast album of the show. Goddard Lieberson, who had optioned the rights to the cast album, felt that it was an important work and decided to proceed with the recording. Over the years, its popularity has continued to endure thanks to the talents of the original cast which starred Angela Lansbury, Harry Guardino and Lee Remick.

Even Sondheim admitted the show has serious flaws, despite what he considers “its considerable charm and humor.” The plot which basically asks the question of who the loonies really are, those in the asylum or those outside, much in the vein of ‘THE CURIOUS SAVAGE ,’ has an unconventional and often satirical, cartoonish and overly obvious plot. It tells the story of a town that's gone bankrupt because its only industry is manufacturing something that never wears out. In order to revive the economy Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper and her town council fake a miracle -- water flowing from a rock -- to attract tourists. When patients at the local mental hospital, the Cookie Jar, escape and mix with the townspeople and tourists, chaos ensues. Of course there is a love story which develops between J. Bowden Hapgood, a psychiatrist who isn't really a psychiatrist, and Fay Apple, a nurse at the Cookie Jar who disguises herself as a miracle verifier sent from Lourdes.

This brings us to the Willoughby Fine Arts Association production. WFAA is a community theatre housed in a wonderful facility. As with many community theatres it has a limited pasture of talent from which to cast shows. Many of those who try out are of school age with a mixture of well-meaning adults. It would be difficult for professionals to pull off a palatable production of ‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE,’ let alone a group of children, teens and a couple of equity actors. One must ask why Artistic Director Fabio Polanco thought he could save what the likes of Broadway director Arthur Laurents and actress Angela Lansbury couldn’t.

Palanco pulled out all the shticks and gimmicks he could. In order to make the proceedings absurd he has a preteen play a psychiatrist, a teen play the city’s comptroller, and even adds a reversal of the Hollywood 1930s dance number showcasing Shirley Temple/Bill Robinson (African American child and White man). The effort is valiant. The cast tries hard but just can’t overcome the vehicle.

The casting of professionals Larry Nehring (J. Bowden Hapgood) and Gina Shmukler (Fay) may have seemed like a good idea, but, in the end, all it did was show the lack of stage maturity of the rest of the cast. Both Nehring and Shmukler are excellent, though Nehring, with his Danny Kaye looks and flair for exaggerated comedy, might have been better cast as the Comptroller.

Paul Gatzke’s set is wonderful and Kristen Buchs lighting works well. Though Sondheim’s music is hard to play, Matthew Webb’s small orchestra basically accomplishes the task and in contrast to many local theatre pit orchestras wisely does not drown out the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The opening lines of the show’s theme song state, “Anyone can whistle, that's what they say, easy. Anyone can whistle, any old day, easy. It's all so simple: Relax, let go, let fly! So someone tell me, why can't I?” The answer to anyone planning on staging ‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE,’ and probably the advice that WFAA should have followed is, “It’s not easy when you have a bad vehicle and a limited talent source.”