Southwark Playhouse is this first major theatre to respond to the recent death of Stephen Sondheim with their new revival of Anyone Can Whistle, one of the strangest and least performed musicals in the canon. This wacky tale of faked miracles, town economics, mental health and social segregation is a puzzling one, combining some really great Sondheim songs and some strong female characters with a cartoonish plot by Arthur Laurents that barely holds together. But with some great performances and more than enough gusto, Southwark Playhouse just about make it worth a two hour and 30-minute investment.
First performed in 1964, Anyone Can Whistle is most notable for introducing (now Dame) Angela Lansbury to musical theatre on Broadway, but the show was deemed a disaster, closing after only 21 performances, a dozen of which can before press night. Southwark Playhouse will hope they fair rather better but the full show has largely been scavenged to provide numbers for out of context cabaret and concert performances including the glorious title song and brilliant melodies including There Won’t Be Trumpets.
So, is it any good? Well as a story, even as a socio-political commentary it is really quite lightweight and, while Laurents’s script taps into some interesting arguments, few of them feel properly developed or particularly tangible in their hugely exaggerated form. The plot is weak at best, even nonsensical and almost criminally basic by Sondheim’s usually rather high standards, lacking depth or even proper purpose. Most characters are either elaborate grotesques or generic concepts that lack individuality and are never fully fleshed out within the story in spite of the wonderful emotional nuance and interior landscape that Sondheim creates for the leads in the music. Yet, there is fun to be had in its broad-brush generality and the amplified silliness of the scenario that stays on just the right side of panto.
Stunted themes about the compromising nature of power are potentially quite interesting as the female Mayoress with the big name – Cora Hoover Hooper – in some senses tries to do the right thing by drumming up business for her economically-compromised town and struggles to manage the nuances of civic action. Here too, there is a sense of the venality of those in authority and Clara’s determination to not only shore-up her personal power but to gain more of it using a team of underlings appointed to civil positions including Comptroller, Treasurer and Police Chief are designed to retain her grip on the town. And it is through Cora’s desire for the personal acquisition of that wealth, that Laurents and Sondheim want to make their points about the intricacies of civic corruption across multiple forms of public office, showcasing the distance between those who govern and the people they are supposed to care for, a note which certainly has plenty of contemporary resonance.
The story hinges on classifications of mental illness when patients of an asylum known as The Cookie Jar are released into society because Cora refuses permission to let them taste the miracle waters for fear of revealing her scam when all 40+ of them remain uncured. Later, the authorities are unable to identify them among the ordinary citizens and, like the corruption theme, there is little subtly here and a great deal of simplification. But Laurents and Sondheim are asking some interesting questions about where the boundary between sanity and insanity lies and by what criteria societies define madness – should Cora and her team in fact be institutionalised for their scheming and lack of empathy?
In developing this revival, Southwark Playhouse plays up the exuberance of it all and chooses to embrace the kooky style. Staged on a thin traverse catwalk, it creates opportunities for the actors to include the audience in the action, physically dividing the auditorium into J. Bowden Hapgood’s Group A and Group 1, moving characters between them to underscore the comedy of their indistinct categorisation. Designed by Cory Shipp, this is a children’s TV world of bright colours as pinks, reds, yellows, bright greens and bold blues filter through the set and costume design, making this an intense visual experience with a carnival feel, all given an extra boost when ticker tape is released on several occasions and bold modernist paintings adorn the end walls.
Directed by Georgie Rankcom, they chose to overcome the shortcomings of the book and plot with a more-is-more approach that makes the best of the material by heightening its unreality. It’s not easy to manage quite a big show filled with dance numbers, multiple group scenes and changing locations in a very thin strip of performance space but Rankcom controls it well, using the length of the room effectively to move the action around as well as playing evenly to both sides of the divided auditorium.
Together, the company do evoke the impression of a much larger town than the dozen people we see as well as the external competition from other municipal centres nearby, each looking to boost their own local tourism. The audience must double for the broader community and Rankcom has the actors appeal to the room as well as distributing the ‘Cookies’ in empty seats as they attempt to blend in. There are a few occasions where unsuspecting members of the public are drawn into the action as readers or even dancers so avoid the front rows if you’d rather not participate. But Rankcom’s choices largely work and with entrances at both ends of the stage, it creates a feeling of distance across the auditorium that allows groups of characters to meet and conspire in what feel like subtly different parts of town. While the raggedy plot requires some considerable suspension of disbelief, the scene setting is more than good enough to at least construct the world of the musical.
Choreographically, Lisa Stevens is constrained a little by the space and what could have been some big showcase numbers are necessarily pinned-back by the thin catwalk and small aisle’s in front of them. As well as scale, Stevens has on the whole limited the complexity of dance, giving performers something they can do without too much movement or needing sequences of activity given how many people are sharing the same stage strip at times. But, drawing out the cabaret and jazzy notes in Sondheim’s more sultry music, Stevens has created a tap-based choreography that leans into A Chorus Line with high kicks, rapid pivots and Fosse long-armed wrist-flicks for bigger numbers with occasion soft salsa for duet moments.
And there is something very characterful in the way Stevens has created specific movements for different individuals depending on their relative allure, power and personality while also allowing the quality of the dance to come from the haplessness or skill of the character. One great sequence at the top of Act Three sees Cora performing an aerobics workout routine with hand weights that has a lovely jaunty comedy when joined by her three stooges who cook up a new dastardly plan and reconfirm their allegiance to one another. It is a bold moment and one that rises to meet Sondheim’s music.
There are moments of real greatness in Anyone Can Whistle and most of them are in the music in which Sondheim gives a tenderness and complexity to leading characters nurse Fay Apple who, somewhat incredulously disguises herself as a French miracle authenticator from Lourdes, and Hapgood, believed to be the new doctor and therefore in charge of the classification of the townspeople. Through the title song, the pair draw closer, suggesting an emotional connection filled with vulnerability and need that is entirely lacking from the text and the silly subterfuge they enter into, but brings some real clout to the show which Rankcom’s production really makes the most of.
Performed by Chrystine Symone nurse Apple is really two characters, one an order-loving nurse who demands respect for her patients and refuses to be brow beaten by the political elite. Symone has a superb voice for Sondheim and her version of There Won’t Be Trumpets is a high point of Acts I and II capturing all the hope and certainty in the song as well as Fay’s grounded belief in justice. Her second character, the French miracle inspector is a tougher proposition, an Allo Allo cliche in lingerie and curly pink wig which Symone shows is essentially her superhero costume, allowing Fay to explore more forthright aspects of her character without fear or reget.
Fay’s duet with Hapgood as they hopelessly fall for one another, With So Little to Be Sure Of, is tender and charmingly performed showing the balance they bring to each’s others lives and quite different but complementary personalities, while the solo See Where It Gets You is another highlight as Symone’s vocals explore the emotional range of her character in way that the book and disguise devices never fully allow. In song, Symone ensures that Fay emerges in three dimensions with a trajectory worth investing in.
This is contrasted by a quite joyous comic performance from Alex Young as Cora who wrings every ounce of amusing malevolence from her character giving her a love-to-hate quality that all but steals the show. Cora may be self-serving, callous and devoid of empathy but Young also makes her glamorous, witty and powerful, controlling the men around her and running rings around the other characters. Even at the end, when good triumphs to a degree, the audience is assured that true survivor Cora still has the nous to find a way out of her predicament.
Young also has a great vocal quality and Sondheim’s tunes suit her very well. The delightful Me and My Town and A Parade in Town have an anthemic quality in which Young encapsulates all of Cora’s ambition, while I’ve Got You to Lean On at the beginning of Act III is a cheeky piece that Young brings extra comedy to through her big but tempered performance. You may even feel a bit sorry for Cora at the end, testament to the way in which Young fills and exudes this role.
Jordan Broatch is also well cast as Hapgood, proving a decent foil for Symone and adding a stranger-in-town energy that explores identity and assumption. The musical complexities of Simple are very well managed while Broatch brings a calm but grounded messiah-like quality that draws on some of the themes in Sondheim’s lyrics. The larger ensemble of Cookies are unfortunately given a collective identity in the story but here are individually distinguished by costume, providing excellent support in the bigger numbers while Danny Lane grows in confidence as the Comptroller.
Anyone Can Whistle is really not the greatest musical and Sondheim’s songs deserve a better vehicle than this strange little tale that isn’t quite abstract or absurdist enough to make its concept work. But this Southwark Playhouse production has more than novelty merit, and by embracing its failings to make it a boldly comic piece, it earns a lot of credit. Fortunately, where plot and purpose are lacking, Sondheim’s timeless music remains enough.