Union Theatre February-March 2017
Producer-director Phil Willmott, with an admirable record of imaginatively staging small-scale musicals, brings all his talent to Anyone Can Whistle – and is defeated (or held to a scoreless draw) by the limitations of the show itself.
Talented and ambitious directors are often drawn to the previously unsuccessful products of major writers, in the confidence or hope that they can be the one to make the unappreciated show work. Thus, in the musical theatre, the occasional revivals of Jerry Herman's Mack And Mabel or, as here, Stephen Sondheim's 1964 flop.
And ardent Sondheim fans, among whom I count myself, continue to hope that each new production will be the one that uncovers the lost masterpiece (or why else would I have sat through three different revivals of Assassins?)
But sometimes a show's failure in the past really does mean that it just isn't very good.
The insurmountable problems with Anyone Can Whistle lie in both the book by Arthur Laurents and Sondheim's songs.
Sondheim has since admitted that both of them were motivated at least in part by the desire to show off how clever they were by satirising and ridiculing everything in sight, and the musical's plot is a jumble.
The ineptly corrupt officials of a dying town fake a miracle to attract religious cure tourism. Meanwhile, coincidentally, the patients in the local loony bin get out and blend disconcertingly into the general population.
And that hoary staple of sentimental drama, a visiting free spirit, tries to woo the repressed nurse whose frigidity (except when she puts on a wig and a French accent, but don't ask) is symbolised by her inability to whistle.
The religious satire, the political farce, the can't-tell-the-crazy-from-the-sane joke and the romantic couple keep getting in each other's way, and at least in Willmott's edited text, none is resolved satisfactorily and loose ends abound.
Meanwhile, Sondheim looks back on this show with pleasure as carrying his first attempts at loosely-structured extended song-forms incorporating dialogue.
But as satisfying as those experiments were to the composer, he does not consider the frustration to the audience, who experience long stretches of what play like lead-ins and vamps straining vainly to find an actual melody.
Anyone Can Whistle does have two or three good (but not great) songs, though Willmott had to dip into the files of those cut in 1964 rehearsals to find at least one of them. But they are all but lost in the uninteresting soundscape around them and the general confusion of the story line.
In the central roles, Rachel Delooze isn't up to the dramatic demands of her first big song 'There Won't Be Trumpets' but does find all the pathos and yearning of the title song and generates some comic energy with Oliver Stanley in the mock-seduction song 'Come Play Wiz Me.'
And Stanley, though he can't give the liberating visitor the authority or charisma that would enable him to take over the town or win the girl, comes alive for the show's best song, 'Everybody Says Don't'.
No one else in the cast really registers, and Holly Hughes' choreography is particularly bland, as she can't even create any excitement with what should be foolproof, a stageful of people tap dancing.
One key scene is staged in near darkness, and in a show one of whose plotlines depends on the joke that the crazy are indistinguishable from the sane, it is surely a mistake to direct the loonies to mug, shriek and writhe like escapees from the Marat/Sade.
Anyone Can Whistle has its moments but they are too few, and this revival has not discovered a lost masterpiece hiding within it.
Receive alerts every time we post a new review
Review - Anyone Can Whistle - Union Theatre 2017