Putting it in the kindest possible terms, New Line Theatre's Anyone Can Whistle has more historical interest than aesthetic worth. An early Stephen Sondheim work, the show opened and quickly closed -- after nine performances -- in 1964. Although Anyone Can Whistle certainly offers a few teasing glimpses of Sondheim's future successes, it's less a logical step in the composer/lyricist's evolution than a mutant strain. Such curiosities have their freakish charms -- appropriately, one of Anyone Can Whistle's earlier titles was Side Show -- but fail to sustain interest after the initial shock.
The musical's principal deformity is its Siamese-twin coupling of acerbic satire and sappy romance. The story primarily focuses on a bankrupt town's efforts to revivify itself by staging a phony miracle: Rigging a pump to produce water from a rock, the city's corrupt officials -- led by Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Lisa Karpowicz) -- intend to charge pilgrims for a drink from the supposedly healing font. Nurse Fay Apple (Chelsea Phillips) thwarts their efforts, however, by insisting that her charges from Dr. Detmold's Cookie Jar, the local insane asylum, be allowed to partake of the waters. The ruling cabal realizes that their scam will be revealed if the Cookies -- that's what they're called throughout -- are dunked but remain certifiable, so they deny all access until they can arrest Nurse Apple, who flees, and sort the crazy from the sane. At this point, the show's romantic hero, J. Bowden Hapgood (Troy Schnider), belatedly appears. The mayoress and her henchmen attempt to enlist the help of the newly arrived psychiatrist, but Hapgood refuses to ID the lunatics -- in fact, he seems to identify with them -- and instead becomes allied (and romantically entangled) with Nurse Apple, who reappears in the guise of a French miracle investigator from Lourdes. The play then proceeds to whipsaw between romantic interludes with Hapgood and Apple and the machinations of the scheming politicos. This hiccuping narrative flow, with its bizarre plot convolutions, is further interrupted by two intermissions.
Director Scott Miller, in a comprehensive essay on the play (available on the New Line Web site, www.geocities.com/newlinetheatre/any-whistle.html), frankly acknowledges Anyone Can Whistle's bifurcated nature and proposes a solution -- putting an absurdist spin on the Hapgood/Apple romance -- but the show's divisions are too wide to be so easily bridged. Miller and choreographer JT Ricroft stage the musical numbers with brio -- nicely adapting to the ArtLoft's shallow stage and making intriguing use of aisle space -- but the acting is wildly uneven. Karpowicz, as the venal, self-absorbed mayoress, and Phillips, as the rationalist nurse hoping for emotional release, fare best (and Phillips delivers an extraordinary rat-a-tat monologue at the end of Act 1), but much of the cast -- especially the mayor's toadies (Michael Brightman, Paul Coffman and Christopher Clark) -- mug and mince outrageously. This approach might work better if the audience was at a greater distance, but the intimate ArtLoft unpleasantly magnifies the over-the-top theatrics. At the other end of the scale, Schnider is too leading-man bland as Hapgood. Miller notes that Anyone Can Whistle shares some of the Marx Brothers' anarchic energy -- especially in the centerpiece song, "Simple," whose cleverly oxymoronic wordplay recalls Animal Crackers' "Hello, I Must Be Going" -- but Schnider is far more Zeppo than Groucho.
Anyone Can Whistle appeals chiefly to the curious who enjoy rummaging in the dustiest and most cobwebbed corners of an artist's closet. Occasionally, such poking about unearths a still-fashionable vintage suit of elegant cut, but mostly the stuff shoved in the darkest reaches hangs there because it's ill fitting, poorly made or hopelessly out of style. Squeezing into a rediscovered Nehru jacket or maroon velvet bell-bottoms may evoke some pleasurably nostalgic memories in all of us, but only a few defiant iconoclasts -- call them brave or foolish -- stroll boldly out of the house wearing them. New Line's production of Anyone Can Whistle resembles one of those daft folks.
Correction: Beverly Sills became ill during early rehearsals of Miss Havisham's Fire. Because of an editing error, a review last week incorrectly said Sills became ill on opening night. The RFT regrets the error.