“Laugh at the king or he’ll make you cry“
The ever-modest Sondheim considers Anyone Can Whistle ‘a laudable attempt to present something off-centre in mainstream musical theatre’, whilst trying to contextualise his first ever commercial failure. But be that as it may, it remains one of his lesser performed works for a reason (it was seen most recently in London directed by Tom Littler at the Jermyn Street in 2010 I think) as Arthur Laurents’ book strains so hard to be zany that it hasn’t noticed how fatally confused it is.
Corrupt Mayor Cora Hooper Hoover and her cronies plot to save their town from going bankrupt by faking a miracle, which attracts tourists aplenty and a bus load of patients from the local asylum who soon escape and mingle into an indistinguishable crowd. Then a fake psychiatrist turns up, who falls in love with a fake miracle verifier from Lourdes…concentrate too hard on this lot and you’ll end up in the asylum with them. Director Phil Willmott thus wisely focuses on the manifold strengths that his production brings to the table.
Holly Hughes’ choreography plays cleverly with the space to produce dynamic routines and frantic energy from a fiercely committed company (particular standouts for me were Tom Mussell, Kate Hurley and Alessandro Lubrano). Richard Baker’s musical direction is really unafraid to take Sondheim’s score head on and embrace all its variety, from full-on driving company numbers with extended recitative sections to the quiet piano melody of plaintively affecting duets.
Leading performances shine dazzlingly. Felicity Hooper’s machiavellian mayor, a woman always heard before she’s seen, is wonderfully seductive as she schemes to hold on to the power she craves. Rachel Delooze’s Nurse Apple is fascinatingly complex as she explores the complexity of her own psyche whilst trying to save the patients from her asylum. And Oliver Stanley’s Hapgood is just inspired, a man whose own manipulations are no less profound for seeming more benevolent – the power of groupthink and oratory has rarely felt so relevant
And it helps of course to have songs of this quality to work with, even when the book stinks, and you can’t deny the power of the interpretations here. Delooze’s rendition of the title track is full of gorgeous hushed fragility but at the same time, she shows us Apple is still willing to pull a fast one to get her own way. Hooper’s ‘Parade in Town’ is full of wonderfully confrontational bruised ego. And for my money, the show’s highlight comes with ‘With So Little To Be Sure Of’, a duet stripped back here to pure emotion, tender and warm and true and Delooze and Stanley get it just right.
Do all of these aspects coalesce into something satisfying? Well Willmott makes sure they come damn close, ensuring a playfulness (the stampede is brilliantly done) and directness (there’s eye contact aplenty from everyone) that is always pleasing to watch. That said, the satirical bite of a show about ‘greed and narcissism in high office’ doesn’t quite land as potently as it could (Littler’s proto-fascistic interpretation filled the asylum with political prisoners to underscore this point.) Still, it’s a beautifully sung rendition of the show – I laughed, I cried, I enjoyed myself a lot.