Sondheim's 'flop' looks doomed to failure

Review by Paul Nelson

IT IS HARD to see why Stephen Sondheim ever got involved with a show so jejune as Anyone Can Whistle, at The Bridewell Theatre, when one considers that he was eight years older than when he collaborated on the luminous West Side Story. A possible reason could be that the book was written by Arthur Laurents, who was also one of the WSS collaborators.

Indeed, Sondheim also collaborated with Laurents on the shows Gypsy and Do I Hear A Waltz? both to better effect than the present revival.

The book of Anyone Can Whistle is startlingly stultifying. In spite of the fact that it purports to have had a major overhaul by the author, which manifests itself mainly in the use of laptops and cell phones, the similarities with other shows exposing both collaborators' obsessions, make the evening heavy going.

For Laurents in Do I Hear a Waltz? the ageing leading lady knows she will have fallen in love when she hears one, and here we have our heroine unable to whistle because of a similar hang-up, this time all mixed up with a mass of other inhibitions. Guess what? One hears a waltz and the other finally manages a feeble tweet when true love frees them.

As for Sondheim, we have the usual references to trumpets, parades and the slaying of dragons.

Well this won't do. Even the choreography is finger clickin' bad and, as this old-fashioned play grinds on, you can practically hear the rusty nails dropping out of the structure, and structure is its main failing.

The scene is small-town America. Mayor, Cora Hoover Hooper, a conniving cow if ever there was one, has inherited a factory, now closed. Blight has descended on the place. How to revive the economy is the main problem. The only institution making money is the local asylum, The Cookie Jar, run by Nurse Fay Apple, dedicated to the point where she should be in our NHS.

Comptroller Schub has a great idea, the town needs a miracle and the word is made flesh, so to speak, by a phoney religious miracle. A little pure child, Baby Joan, through saintliness discovers a spring of water flowing from a solid rock. The town is instantly swamped with pilgrims, they are duly charged admission, and all seems to be looking up.

Nurse Apple tries to get her patients, the Cookies, to visit the miracle but as they are deemed incurable, their presence would cast doubt on the efficiency of the miracle 'cures' and they are refused entry. The inmates mingle with the townspeople and pilgrims and when Fay refuses to identify them so they can be locked up again, she has to scarper to avoid arrest.

Handsome Dr Hapgood arrives to assist the chief psychiatrist at the institution and, when asked to identify the mad, throws confusion everywhere by dividing everyone into either Group 'A' or Group 'One', then won't tell which group is insane.

At this point, the Lady From Lourdes arrives, in fact Fay in a fright wig, in order to verify the miracle is a bona fide one. She and Hapgood find each other attractive (and incidentally through her song Come Play Wiz Me, the show actually starts to come alive).

Cora decides The Lady From Lourdes must be eliminated as she is a threat to the miracle, and she and her crooked cohorts turn off their electric pump, source of the 'miracle'. No miracle, no test, therefore the Lady will return to Lourdes and the pump can be started again to continue the prosperity.

To cut this very long story short, yes, there is much more, it turns out that Hapgood isn't a doctor, there was a mix up on his arrival in town when he was due to be admitted to the Cookie Jar. The pump is discovered by Fay and Hapgood, Cora and her gang are exposed. Hapgood answers Fay's whistle and they go off into the sunset and happily, the entire population of the town leaves for the next town where another miracle has been discovered, this time a warm heart in a marble statue.

You don't have to be a Freud to work it all out. It is spelled out for you, along with references to the Bomb and taxes mixed up with the big question, are we all insane or is it just our leaders? When Fay has to name the lunatics their surnames are the ones of all the great artists and independent thinkers of history. Got the message yet?

Apart from the big question, is it all worth wading through; the audience has to wait ages for the GFS (girl's first song), in this case the effective Come Play Wiz Me. Cora being the baddie, her first song, Me and My Town, doesn't count and anyway, Cora disappears for what seems like hours, Fay having previously disappeared for ages, both absences due to the necessity of laying down the turgid plot.

There are further complications to weigh down the story. Cora's sexual appetite shown by her sensual advances to Schub, and the absolute lack of characterisation of the other members of her gang, Treasurer Cooley and Chief of Police Magruder, all crying out to be The Three Stooges if ever there was a case for such levity. As it is, their jokes fall flat and it is not due to any lack of talent by the artists involved.

The fault lies as I pointed out in my opening remarks; the structure is flawed beyond redemption.

No musical play with such illustrious, if misguided, talents can, in fact, be all bad however, and this is no exception. Sondheim occasionally strays into near tuneful popular songs, notably with Cora's I've Got You to Lean On, surely a legacy from his association with Jule Styne, With So Little to be Sure Of and the title song. He dallies with his usual initially confusing structures in Simple and, of course, his dose of irony, There's a Parade in Town.

The leading artists give a fair account of themselves. The reliable and charming James Smillie is sexily unctuous, Paula Wilcox breaking some interesting new ground, is prevented from portraying the true bitchiness of Cora and is too vocally weak to belt what could be some really big numbers, and Edward Baker-Duly gives stalwart support to the scintillating Janie Dee. Baker-Duly's rendition of Everybody Says Don't, a song that could be a public manifesto of Sondheim anarchy is given the gusto you would expect, as he tries to seduce the delectable Dee, who almost makes the whole thing worthwhile. Between them, these four all hand the audience their money's worth and for these crumbs the audience was indeed grateful.

Nothing, however, can save the truly dreadful book. It lasted originally on Broadway for nine performances (that many, huh?) and for that I suggest the creators should have been grateful.

Within a desultory, and possibly critical, effort from the designer and the lighting team, there remains an outstanding and mystifying poser. Was it all worth the candle?

Anyone Can Whistle, a musical with Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Arthur Laurents, Directed by Michael Gieleta, Musical Director Mark Etherington, Choreography Darren Royston, Design Francisco Rodriguez-Weil, Lighting Design Mike Robertson, WITH: Edward Baker-Duly (Hapgood), Janie Dee (Fay), Mark Heenehan (Cooley), Aaron Shirley (Magruder), James Smillie (Schub), Paula Wilcox (Cora), Nadine Isabel Mason-Bertrand (Baby Joan) and Marcus Adolphy, Jonathan Glew, Shimi Goodman, Orit Haddad, Helen Healy, Tasha Johnson, Sarah Lawn, Simon Masterton, Aolfe Nally, Andrew Piper (Ensemble). Presented by The Gryphon, Producer Leigh Large, at The Bridewell Theatre, Bride Lane, London EC4. Tickets 020 7936 3456