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Review: MasterVoice'S ANYONE CAN WHISTLE Elevates a Sondheim Flop at Carnegie Hall

The concert boasted a 60-person choir, enough dancers to fill Carnegie Hall's stage, a full orchestra, and simple yet effective choreography.

Review: MasterVoice'S ANYONE CAN WHISTLE Elevates a Sondheim Flop at Carnegie Hall
Eddie Cooper, Douglas Sills, Vanessa Williams, Michael Mulheren. MasterVoices Anyone Can Whistle. Credit Nina Westervelt

As I was leaving MasterVoice's Anyone Can Whistle, there was a consensus of the mutterings of theater-goers: what a terrible story, but what great songs.

Anyone Can Whistle should really only be done as a concert. The story, written by Arthur Laurents, makes little sense, and is probably only of interest to the most ardent musical theater fans. The crown jewel of the show is the score, full of early Stephen Sondheim gems buried underneath a dated, absurdist, pretentious script.

But if Anyone Can Whistle must be a concert, please, let it be a concert like this. MasterVoices, an organization dedicated to elevating choral works, brought the show to Carnegie Hall for a one-night engagement. They masterfully adapted the show as a scaled-down concert version, dropping any bells and whistles ("Water is actually coming out of the rock now!" narrator Joanna Gleason quips at one point, with no rock or water present on stage. "I can see it! Can you?") However, they didn't skimp on the parts integral to the show: a 60-person choir, enough dancers to fill Carnegie Hall's stage, a full orchestra, and simple yet effective choreography. They reduced the script to a handful of the best or most important scenes and heavily condensed or summarized the rest (with animated narration from Joanna Gleason). They gloss over the stupidest parts of the story, of which there are many. (Did I mention that the book doesn't make much sense?) With the book condensed, you can see the promise that originally attracted backers like Frank Loesser and Irving Berlin. In one of the funniest scenes, our heroine not-so-convincingly plays a French seductress.

Review: MasterVoice'S ANYONE CAN WHISTLE Elevates a Sondheim Flop at Carnegie Hall
Santino Fontana and Elizabeth Stanley. MasterVoices Anyone Can Whistle. Credit Nina WesterveltCaption

"Te parle Francais?" Hapgood, played in this production by Santino Fontana, asks her.

"Un peu," she replies.

"Anglais?"

"Parfaitement."

The casting is perfect. Elizabeth Stanley shines as Fay Apple, the sweet nurse who just wants to learn how to feel something, anything. (Since this is 1964, the cure for her frigidness isn't a PTSD counselor specializing in sexual assault trauma for the implied rape that gets a one-off joking reference in the script, but the love of J. Bowden Hapgood, the psychiatrist's assistant who's supposed to save the town but ends up teaching us how to be free. Santino Fontana is perfect as Hapgood, the crazed idealist at the show's heart. He's perfectly suited to the role, all manic energy and no holds barred raw emotion and talent. He seriously performs the show's most absurd musical number, "Simple," imbuing it with gravitas. Vanessa Williams serves as the cynical Cora Hoover Hooper, in perfect step with her three goons. The chorus, dancing and orchestra all work together in a harmonious blend. You can find the whole cast on MasterVoice's website.

Anyone Can Whistle has a very special place in Broadway history - it's one of the first shows where Sondheim and Laurents broke out and tried to turn musical theater into something totally original - following in the footsteps of shows like Lady in the Dark, another absurdist work that MasterVoices also performed a few years ago. It's lovely hearing the score, which includes classics like "Everybody Says Don't," "With So Little to Be Sure of," and "There Won't Be Trumpets," performed by masterful musicians and singers, all in the resonant acoustics of Carnegie Hall. For anyone who missed this sold-out concert, all I can say is follow MasterVoices on social media to make sure you don't miss their next production.

You can follow MasterVoices on Twitter and Instagram for more information.



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From This Author - Rebecca Kaplan