There’s a temptation when writing about Sondheim and Laurents’ failed 1964 musical Anyone Can Whistle to write it off as being ahead of its time and misunderstood by the contemporary commercial Broadway audience. Opening in the same season as Hello Dolly, Funny Girl and Oliver!, its nine performance run helped the show achieve a sort a cult status, boasting a couple of stand-out classics and legendary anecdotes.
Perhaps the show’s greatest asset is an understanding that rather than being ahead of its time it was uniquely of its time, representing American musical theatre at a period of conflict within itself. A time of huge social, domestic and political change the established conventions of musical comedy had become passé, and with the emergence of absurdist writers such as Ionesco and Genet exploding off-off-Broadway Whistle reflects this revolutionary style and appetite for the avant-garde that Sondheim and Laurents were attempting to clinch.
It’s a spirit that director Phil Wilmott almost embraces in this neat and perhaps too finely-honed production at the Union Theatre, brought to life by an energetic and committed cast who are sure on the razzle dazzle but less comfortable with the satirical bite. At a time where America is wrestling itself in terms of the community verses the individual the show is in prime position for a reinvention, but this never fully comes despite its clean and polished exterior.
Set in small town America on the verge of bankruptcy the twisted Mayor Cora Hoover and her band of flawed elites cook up a plan to attract tourists by faking a miracle. As they briefly bask in their success Nurse Apple from the local mental asylum brings her patients to the ‘miracle’ resulting in them becoming mixed up in the townsfolk and a new Doctor having to work out how to separate the sane from the not-so. Your mind doesn’t have to wander too far to drag the fake news and crooked autocrats into a modern perspective and the deepest existential question the piece raises about who actually are we to call someone else ‘mad’ when it may be us who are insane will likely keep your head spinning all the way home, but as a musical it’s quick to criticise and slow to resolve.
That said, the production doesn’t probe hard enough to justify its own existence. Instead of advancing the show’s innately challenged form and invitation for experimentation the emphasis is placed instead on the more familiar trappings of musical comedy – notably the love story between Nurse Apple and 'Doctor' Hapgood that’s played so earnestly and sexlessly that it would fail to ignite in a barn stocked with dry hay.
Sondheim’s score offers much for the ears, from the boundary pushing “Simple” in which Hapgood attempts to sort the mad form the sane to the romantic ballads “With So Little to be Sure of” and the inverted homage to the peppy ‘everyone loves a band’ number “There’s a Parade in Town” that falls somewhat flat. Some numbers however are over produced with zappy choreography (Holly Hughes) and a random tap number, whilst others feel sparse and bare adding to the show’s overall uneven texture. It’s nicely sung by the spirited ensemble, providing the best sound balance I’ve yet experienced in the new venue with considerate and clear musical direction from Richard Baker.
Felicity Duncan’s Cora Hoover gives the role some acid charm but her voice doesn’t open up on the should-be showstoppers to convince you that underneath the madness lies some of Sondheim’s most accomplished treasures. Rachel Delooze’s Nurse Apple settles into the role vocally by the second half, but it’s Oliver Stanley whose voice stands out amongst the soloists, despite the Willy Wonka-esque mannerisms he’s trapped in.
More of a curio for Sondheim completists the show can be enjoyed as a flawed example of musical theatre’s 1960s identity crisis and whilst it occasionally falls over into the incomprehensible there’s always a Sondheim delight just around the corner to offer some sense to the madness.