Anyone Can Whistle is performed by Guildford School of Acting’s 2nd Year Musical Theatre students at the Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford.
Star rating: 3 stars ★ ★ ★
The curiosity value of a rare outing for one of Stephen Sondheim’s least-performed works – it lasted only nine performances on Broadway in 1964 – has led to a sell-out for the GSA’s three-day Mill Studio run.
Even many Sondheim groupies, keen to complete the ‘set’, are seeing it for the first time, and now I know why we haven’t had a London production since 2010 at Jermyn Street, and why critics savaged it when Angela Lansbury made her short-lived Broadway bow half a century ago.
As one of the kinder New York reviews put it, Arthur Laurents’ book is “clumsily vague” and the storyline, that the inmates of the Cookie Jar, a mental institution in small-town USA, are no madder than the corrupt politicians and police chiefs on the outside, palpably too heavy a subject for musical comedy.
It didn’t help the original, which opened one Saturday night and closed on the next one, that the three leads were Hollywood stars who had never sung on a Broadway stage, or that one of them, Lee Remick, had the best songs as crazy nurse Fay Apple but little voice to put them across.
That comment certainly doesn’t apply to GSA’s Megan Bancroft who performs the title song and ‘There Won’t Be Trumpets’, two of Sondheim’s finest which survive today in revues and cabaret, with purity and supreme clarity. Bancroft also shows good comic timing in the seductive ‘Come Play Wiz Me’, in faux French accent and spectacular red wig, love-duetting with Jack Keane’s well-realised fake doctor Hapgood.
The critics’ savaging of the Broadway show destroyed the confidence of original male lead Harry Guardino, who lost his voice as Hapgood. Thankfully, Keane oozes confidence and his treatment of another big number, Sondheim’s classic warning ‘Everybody Says Don’t’, as well as strong acting skills, marks him down as a name to watch.
These are only 2nd Years and some way from the finished articles GSA will launch into the ultra-competitive world of West End and Fringe auditions, but there is no denying the potential on view.
Courtney Bowman, taking the Lansbury part of the corrupt lady mayor Cora (incidentally, Dame Angela called the script “nuts” when first sent it and fought Laurents all the way in interpretation of the role), has plenty to do and relishes every moment in a pleasing performance.
And we could have done with hearing more of Marina Lawrence-Mahrra’s thrilling soprano in a minor role. Also a fine clarinettist, she, like others in the big cast, have to multi-task by helping out musical director Peter Roberts’ hard-working piano with Sondheim’s tricky score.
The long Cookie Chase Ballet segment livens up the second half considerably, demonstrating a further facet of triple-threat capability, and while the idea may be clunky, the problem is not with Sondheim’s score or the vibrant performances of these gifted youngsters.
Without the help of director Kenn Oldfield’s informative programme notes or the benefit of swotting up the plot on Wiki, this alleged satire must have mystified many in the auditorium. For a ‘comedy’ the laughs are in short supply, although Act II is significantly more entertaining.
While glad finally to make acquaintance with ‘Whistle’, I’m even gladder I won’t have to sit through it again (although told it improves with the knowing) and have a feeling the audience-friendly Company, GSA’s second helping of Sondheim, will see me whistling a happier tune.