Filichia Features: Anyone is Still Whistling

Filichia Features: Anyone is Still Whistling

Cora (Madi Rosenthal - center), surrounded by the Tipsy Nurse (Sarah Boyle), Mrs. Schroeder (Jackie Daaleman), John (Michael Poyntz), dancer Lucy Hale, townsperson Connor Wynne and June (Lauren Echausse), feigns sympathy for the poor in "Me and My Town".



Fifty years ago this week, a musical opened on Broadway.

Fifty years ago next week, that same musical closed on Broadway.

After nine performances, Anyone Can Whistle called it a life.

And yet, a full half-century later, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ “wild new musical” (as it was billed) is still with us. In fact, it’s never really left, despite those original negative reviews from the important New York Times and New York Herald Tribune.

Yes, The New York World Telegram & Sun critic said “You have no idea how many breath-taking surprises are in store for you” while the one from The New York Journal American called it “fantastic … a happy escapist evening.” However, the latter critic was quite wrong when he predicted that Anyone Can Whistle would provide “the sweet smell of money.”

But how many financial failures have scores that have been released on LP, 4-track tape, 8-track tape, cassette, CD, downloads and Spotify? To quote a lyric from another Sondheim short-runner: "Damn few."

And who’d expect that Anyone Can Whistle would be produced in a high school? And yet, last month the show enjoyed a stunning production at Westfield (New Jersey) High School.

Fay (Kim Roth) imagines when her hero will will arrive as she sings "There Won't Be Trumpets".

Actually, any organization that has two terrific leading ladies should consider Whistle. First, there’s Cora Hoover Hooper (originally played by Angela Lansbury), the mayor of a town that’s dead broke. (“Grass on the sidewalk, but not in the park,” as one of Sondheim’s imaginative lyrics goes.)

The town doesn’t just need a quick fix; it needs a miracle, and, by golly, Comptroller Schub is going to ensure that it gets one by arranging from a big boulder in town to suddenly spout water. This “miracle” will soon bring in tourists who will boost the economy. This way, Cora will no longer be “unpopular with the populace.”

Unpopular politicians? The New Jersey audience could relate to that-- especially in light of recent events. (And if you doubt it, I've got a George Washington Bridge I'd like to sell you.) There were many knowing chuckles from the audience when Cora claimed not to know anything about the scandal when we had already witnessed that she was in on it very early on. The chuckles got louder when Cora talked about running for president, an activity that many Jerseysans once believed that their current governor would attempt.

Once. But no matter where you live, there’s probably a nefarious politician around whom the audience will identify with Schub and Associates.

When Sondheim and Laurents began writing the show in the early '60s, theatergoers either remembered or knew of Kay Thompson's famous night club act with The Williams Brothers at Ciro’s. The writers paid homage in their opening number ("Me and My Town") by having Cora backed up by four "boys" (as men who dance are often called).

Here at Westfield, however, extraordinary director Daniel Devlin knew that a 2014 audience wouldn’t be aware of the now-forgotten Thompson-Williams act, so he peppered the stage with plenty of boys and girls -- which, frankly, makes more sense; given that the mayor is singing about the town, we should see as many townspeople as we can.

But, oh, did Madeleine Rosenthal sell the song! Afterward, as the torrent of applause greeted her achievement, she waved it off to comic effect as Devlin had directed. One thing WHISTLE does early and often is announce in no uncertain terms that it’s a musical that’s being played in front of an audience. Devlin played into that concept all night long.

And that boulder that spouts water? Some years ago, as an off-Broadway production of Whistle was being readied, I asked the director if he planned to have a rock from which water would pour. He waved off the question as a ridiculous one and said "Of course not" in a you-idiot voice. "We're going to shoot out confetti that will substitute for the water."

Hapgood (Fraser Weist) urges Fay (Kim Roth) to tear up the records of her Cookies in "Everybody Says Don't".

Westfield High built an enormous rock from which water flowed freely.

Devlin has built quite an operation here. His productions are routinely nominated and often win the Paper Mill Playhouse's "Rising Star" awards that the theater annually bestows on high school performers. And yet, parents, friends and relatives wouldn’t be enough to fill Westfield’s vast auditorium; word-of-mouth has spread to the point that more people saw a Whistle performance here than the number that attended any of the performances during the short Broadway run.

Back to the plot. Wouldn’t you know that just as all the miracle-hungry tourists arrive, so do inmates from the local asylum – or, to put it the euphemistic way that Laurents preferred, “Cookies” got out of “The Cookie Jar.” They’re led by our second leading lady: Fay Apple, their nurse who wants her charges to take the waters in hopes they’ll be cured.

Fay, however, has problems of her own. The poor lass is an ice-queen so pent-up with neuroses of her own that she can’t even whistle.

Perhaps not, but, my, could Kim Roth sing, displaying Streisand-like pipes. Funny: when Laurents was writing the show, he had Streisand in mind for Fay, because he knew what she could do from having had given the lady her big break after directing her in her first-ever Broadway show. Instead of Whistle, Streisand opted to do a different musical that season: Funny Girl. But hearing the expressive and potent Roth do the part made you feel that Streisand had changed her mind. Yes, Roth – and Rosenthal, for that matter -- must be charter members of that after-school extra-curricular activity known as Future Elphabas of America.

Magruder (Colin Barry), Cora (Madi Rosenthal), Cooley (Daniel Coelho) and Schub (Frank Guerriero) scheme on how to end the "miracle" in "I've Got You To Lean On".

Anyone Can Whistle is an apt title for the show, and not merely because Sondheim wrote a beautiful song by that name. Fay's inability to "let go" and "be free" is the result of a world where many judge anything non-conformist as crazy or dangerous. High schoolers find that type of judgment in their lives most every day, so WHISTLE will speak to them. Fay's sad complaint that "Everybody is trying to change me" will resonate with kids who are experiencing the same situation from these same people who came to see them perform. As for the come-back-go-away-I-love you games that we see Fay play with mysterious stranger J. Bowden Hapgood, teens have already played them with their boyfriends and girlfriends.

Most of all, kids will relate to "Everybody Says Don't," Hapgood's litany of demands that society makes on its members: don’t walk on the grass, don’t skate on the ice, mustn’t rock the boat, mustn’t touch. Here at Westfield, Frasier Weist was a most accomplished Hapgood, roaring “But I say ‘Do!’” and getting a good deal of applause for his spirited rendition. But the audience was applauding the song’s message, too.

Weist delivered a beautiful "With So Little to Be Sure Of," the final number in which Hapgood and Fay dare to trust each other and commit to the love they've been feeling. In fact, Rosenthal, Roth and Weist sounded better than Lansbury, Lee Remick and Harry Guardino on the original cast album. Frank Guerriero as Schub led a talented phalanx of advisers, and Devlin’s chorus members shone, too. He obviously taught the kids the essential rule of ensemble playing: do not assume that you are merely an anonymous being; you must invent a character for yourself. So some Cookies seemed crazy while others seemed shy. Yet others seemed militant while others appeared scared.

And don't you love when a director or a performer finds a different way of delivering a line in a completely different way from what’s heard on the cast album? While Janet Hayes’s June blithely told us that she wouldn't give her husband a raise because "he's not worth it," here Lauren Echausse said it in a no-nonsense and thoroughly unapologetic way.

For better or worse, there are plenty of dance opportunities in Whistle. If your choreographer is as expert as Westfield's Samantha Hahn, then you'll be able to do the two ballets to perfection. If not, you can easily finesse them. Much of the "choreography," in fact, could be kept to simple marching, for a couple of numbers are Sousa-worthy.

In the show, Cora throws around the word "Brilliant!" quite a bit. So did I after seeing Daniel Devlin's production of Anyone Can Whistle. If you tell people you’re planning to do it, you may find that everybody says "Don't!" But I say "Do!"

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