Friday, February 17, 2012

Anyone Can Whistle

Dan Folino and Katherine DeBoer make ANYONE CAN WHISTLE worth seeing

When Martin Friedman, Artistic Director of The Lakeland Civic Theatre, announced he was staging Stephen Sondheim’s ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, there were some raised eyebrows in the theatre community. Friedman is a Sondheimophile. He knows the master’s works well. Why would he even adventure into Whistle land, which is fraught with land mines?

Originally entitled, THE NATIVES ARE RESTLESS, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE was a resounding flop on Broadway. Classified as the first absurdist musical, it lasted just thirteen previews and nine performances in spite of a cast that included Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick.

The show was seemingly doomed from the start. It took thirty-three backers’ auditions to raise the money. The lead supporting male had a heart attack, one of the dancers fell into the orchestra pit and died, Angela Lansbury, in her first musical production, was so unhappy with her performance that they considered replacing her. The three act format, the last major musical written in this style, was too long and whacking away at it resulted in some of the best songs being cut. This is not the stuff hit musicals are made of.

Sondheim, himself, in his book FINISHING THE HAT, COLLECTED LYRICS (1954-1981) WITH ATTENDANT COMMENTS, PRINCIPLES, HERESIES, GRUDGES, WHINES AND ANECDOTES states, “The show suffered a number of indignities during the pre-Broadway tour in Philadelphia. The fault was not in our stars but in ourselves” (music and lyrics by Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents).

The show takes place in a small American town, which is a financial and physical wreck because its manufacturing base is a plant that makes a product which never wears out, and is the home of the Cookie Jar, an insane asylum. Cora Hoover Hooper, the town’s mayor and owner of the plant, comes up with a scheme to create a fake Lourdes-like miracle fountain. A nurse (Fay Apple) who covers up her identity by using a French accent and a red wig, a psycho (J. Bowden Hapgood)who is misidentified as Cookie Jar’s new assistant director, and three manipulating town employees create pandemonium.

The music is exceptional. Actually, some reviewers, in retrospect, call it Sondheim at his best. The album has a strong cult following and if the book was eliminated and the songs just sung, the choral concert might well have been a hit. Songs include There Won’t be Trumpets, Anyone Can Whistle, Everybody Says Don’t, and With So Little To Be Sure Of.

Lakeland’s production, under Friedman’s direction, is quite uneven. The leads are wonderful. Dan Folino, who left the area several years ago to take a position at Barter Theatre in Virginia, is back, and local theatre goers cheer his return. Folino has proven over and over that whether it’s comedy, drama or musicals, he is superb. His strong singing voice, ability to create real characters and dancing ability all add up to make his portrayal of Hapwood, a show highlight. Katherine DeBoer is fine as nurse Fay Apple. Good voice and a nice touch with the quirky. The duo has wonderful chemistry together.

Voluptuous Amiee Collier doesn’t quite convince as the mayor, but her singing and seduction scenes are well done.

The rest of the cast tries hard, but they don’t have a lot to work with and don’t always seem to understand how to create farce.

Larry Goodpaster does a nice job with the orchestra, supporting, rather than drowning out the singers. Trad Burns set design and lighting work well. Jennifer Justice’s choreography is fairly pedestrian. There needed to be more bizarre, let-loose joy from the cookies.

Capsule judgement: ANYONE CAN WHISTLE is a weak script which gets an acceptable production at Lakeland. It’s worth going just to experience Dan Folino and Katherine DeBoer in action.