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PA Review: 'Anyone Can Whistle'...and wonder

Do you feel socially pressured? Dr. L. Sidney Detmold has just the town for you, Cookie. Anyone Can Whistle returns home to Philadelphia where it first previewed at the Forrest Theater. Considered Stephen Sondheim's bravest and most complex score in 1964, this ill-fated production made its way to Broadway, closing after just 9 performances.

The Prince Theater has resurrected Anyone Can Whistle as part of their "American Legacy" series, celebrating groundbreaking but little known musicals from the past.

Written during the 60s, a time when analysts and drugs were replaced by asylums and a corrupt political element decided if you were normal or a "cookie" (mental patient). Set this plot to a clever, poignant score by a young brilliant composer,Stephen Sondheim, and you might understand Anyone Can Whistle. With time tested music, and dialogue so intriguing one would almost wager that the book would be wonderful. It is in fact complex and confusing, yet if you read between the lines, and listen beyond the sung lyrics you will find a fable that is simply a biting satire that's not to be taken too seriously.

The creators set out to tell a story and to make a point about the times, along with the fears and frailities of the human spirit. Set in any small American town gone bankrupt, a band of local politicians, headed by a not so clever Mayoress, find a way to create a miracle and keep the control of the people (mostly deemed "cookies") right where they want them. When the "good" Dr. Detmold is greeted by the out of town dashing psychiatrist J. Bowden Hapgood, the townspeople are tricked into being normalized, which leads the local controllers to plot a way to regain their power. Hapgood finds himself in an unlikely love story with a cynical nurse (Fay Apple) who goes from a romantic to the realization that with all her strength and redeeming qualities, she still can't "whistle."

There are certain elements of this story as it unfolds that bear a shocking reminder of our present day situation such as the perils of non-conformity to society, the fear of destruction both physically and mentally, and the corruptible power of a government who has hoodwinked its citizens into a secure, controlled environment.

"Whistle" had surely broken free from the conventional form of your typical musical, which many called a cult show or ahead of its time. But even Sondheim's familiar hits "Everybody Says Don't," "There Won't Be Trumpets," or the title song "Anyone Can Whistle," can't fully compensate for the lack of coherency in the book. Even legend Angela Lansbury, with Harry Guardino and Lee Remick who debuted at the Forrest couldn't combine their talents and come up with a winner for "Whistle." I found myself discovering plot and style similarities of the recent surprise musical hit Urinetown with Anyone Can Whistle and wondered if "Whistle" were revived on Broadway again, would they cheer today?

The Prince presents this concert-style production with little sets and scant lighting, along with cardboard cut out characters as 49 "cookies" in the jar. Not to be overlooked is the joy of an onstage full orchestra to accompany this memorable music. The principles are overall very talented. Jane Summerhays, as Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper brings a delightful sense of comedy, with fullness and flare. Her cohorts comptroller Schub (Jim Bergwall), Treasurer Cooley (Doug Anderson), and police Chief Magruder (Charles McCloskey) all play off Summerhays quite nicely.

Tony-winner Crista Moore was cast as nurse Fay Apple, fell ill during previews where she was replaced by newcomer Taryn Cagnina. She returned for opening night, and gave a solid performance which lacked a depth of emotion. In all fairness, this may have been due to illness, which was spreading throughout the cast. Prince's choice of casting a noticeably young nurse opposite Broadway's Chuck Wagner as J. Bowden Hapgood proved to be a bit unrealistic. Wagner plays a charming, mature and vocally well-equipped Hapgood with a natural appeal and clever comedic element, but the romantic match up is a stretch of the imagination.

The direction seems to roller coaster between keeping the faced paced craziness coherent and the scattering and lengthy gathering of the cookies who disappear within the audience. The only way to play out this show is with over the top cartoon-ish characters, because as Hapgood, cookie #50 proclaims, "You are all crazy."

Anyone Can Whistle plays at the Prince theater from January 26-February 6th. For tickets and more information call 215.569.9700 or visit www.princemusictheater.org

photo: Chuck Wagner as J. Bowden Hapgood with director, Charles Gilbert (courtesy of Prince Theater)
photo: Chuck Wagner with caricature of Sonheim, Prince Thea. lobby (courtesy of Jim Weiner)




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