Musicals Robert Tanitch The Bridewell Theatre at the bottom end of Fleet Street has established itself as a fringe venue, that revives musicals which wouldn't otherwise get another airing. Hardly a year goes by without a revival of one of Stephen Sondheim's musicals, but Anyone Can Whistle is something special in that it is the first fully staged production in London of a show, which was premiered in New York in 1964.
Sondheim had just had a smash hit with A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, a crude vaudeville farce, set in Roman times and based on the plays of Plautus. Anyone Can Whistle was a contemporary, zany, satirical fable on corrupt administrations, credulous masses and lunatics on the loose. The book was by Arthur Laurents, who had already worked successfully with Sondheim twice before, having written the books for West Side Story and Gypsy. The production closed after only nine performances, a legendary flop. Since then there has been the occasional concert performance. People always said the show was ahead of its time. The truth is that the book was deeply flawed and. despite some recent tinkering and unnecessary updating. it is still deeply flawed. The good news, however. is that one of Sondheim's favourite songs "A Parade in Town", which was originally cut. is now back in.
A miracle is needed to save a small American town from bankruptcy. A councillor (James Smillie) suggests to the mayor (Paula Wilcox) that they fake a miracle to bring in the pilgrims and rake in the money. A nurse (Janie Dee) from the local mental institution brings along 49 patients to test/expose the miracle and they get mixed up with the ordinary pilgrims. A visiting psychiatrist (Edward Baker-Duly) is asked to sort out the sane from the insane. "It's simple as ABC," he says, and proceeds to mix everybody up until nobody has any idea as to who is mad and who isn't.
Are you absolutely certain that in similar circumstances you wouldn't be mistaken for a patient? Do you pay taxes? One of the psychiatrist's questions is: "What could be madder than paying taxes so that governments can manufacture bombs and not use them?" The Bridewell audience can be heard catching its collective breath.
The hysterical mayor, finding she has 49 empty cells in the jail to fill, starts to behave like a Nazi, taking anybody off the streets and locking
them up. She orders the nurse to provide her with a list of people, which the nurse duly does, listing some of the most famous Jewish surnames of the 20th century. The mayor is such an unsympathetic character that really she needs to be played by a comedienne. Paula Wilcox isn't funny and she hasn't got the voice to do justice to the "Paradesong.
The nurse falls in love with the psychiatrist. The production's one, only high spot is when she drops her normal starchy appearance and, adopting the role of a sexy French seductress, goes to work on the psychiatrist. The lead-up to their song, "Come Play With Me", is acted out in French and is amusing precisely because both actors' French accents are so good. The nurse says that people need miracles. He says being alive is a miracle. The psychiatrist turns out to be a patient.
Janie Dee has a sweet voice and she and Edward Baker-Duly make an attractive couple, but Anybody Can Whistle can only be recommend to aficionados of Sondheim. Michael Gieleta's production begins in a very messy fashion. The set is tacky and amateurish, while the stage is generally is overcrowded.
Anyone Can Whistle is at The Bridewell Theatre until February 15. Box Office: 020 7936 3456.