Anyone Can Whistle (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: April 6, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Danny With a Camera

Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim

Book> Arthur Laurents

Director: Georgie Rankcom

⭐️⭐️⭐️

When Anyone Can Whistle landed with a thud on Broadway in 1964, Stephen Sondheim already had three hits under his belt: West Side Story and Gypsy as lyricist and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as composer/lyricist. Therefore, it is hard to put the show’s failure down to beginner’s bad luck and, in the intervening years, there have been few attempts to revive it. It is more likely that the best songs will be heard in concert performances.

The small town setting is typical of many early musicals, but, in this case, it is not used as a showcase for wholesome all American values. Sondheim posts a warning with the song There Won’t Be Trumpets, which could have been a deliberate counter to the euphoric 76 Trombones from the near contemporary Broadway hit, The Music Man. This town is bankrupt and rife with political corruption and social repression. It seems that only a miracle will save it, so one is duly manufactured.

The town’s mayor is Cora Hoover Hooper, played originally, albeit for only a handful of performances, by Angela Lansbury. Here, Alex Young simply devours the role and spits it back at the audience with venom. Her avaricious power crazy vamp is the big success at the heart of director Georgie Rankcom’s revival. Otherwise, the show is not particularly well sung and Lisa Stevens’ choreography, constrained by the narrow traverse stage, shows little invention; however, boundless youthful exuberance carries the production along its bumpy road.

Central to community life is an institution known as “The Cookie Jar”, a home for 49 townsfolk who have mental health difficulties, or, perhaps, for general misfits. There is no reason to believe that this concept would have been any more palatable in 1964 than it is now, but Rankcom does a good job in trying to connect the narrative to modern day sensitivities. Members of the 49 merge with the audience when the show poses the key question as to who is “normal” and who is not. Chrystine Symone as Fay Apple, nurse in charge of the “Jar” and Jordan Broatch as J Bowden Hapgood, the psychedelically attired new psychiatrist in town, make a likeable couple, even if their romance feels as if it has been pasted on as an afterthought.

Although Sondheim is not without fault, it is easier to blame Arthur Laurents’ book for the show’s failure. A social and political satire it may be, but it never feels like a slice of real American life, while it is far too heavy handed to work as a fantasy fable. Sondheim’s songs range from the downright ordinary to the sort that are mosts commonly associated with the recently departed great man. At least three of them are far bigger than the show, including the brilliant tongue twister Everybody Says Don’t and the lovely title number, which is essentially a simple lament for low self esteem, but it brings in intricate phrasing and a matching bitter-sweet melody which typify what was to become so treasured over the years.

Rankcom’s lively revival provides a rare opportunity to catch up with an almost lost curiosity, but it comes nowhere near to resolving all of the show’s multitude of problems. At least, its energy, colour and good-heartedness just about pass the whistle test.

Performance date: 5 April 2022

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