Wednesday, 6 April 2022

REVIEW: Anyone Can Whistle at the Southwark Playhouse

How exactly does a gifted composer like Stephen Sondheim follow up three smash hits on Broadway; especially when one of them was West Side Story, a seminal work that set the benchmark for all that followed it? Astronauts that fly to the moon do not even begin to describe the dilemma in which he found himself, as Anyone Can Whistle opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway in April 1964. Negative reviews sadly killed the show off after only 9 performances. In the US critics appear all-powerful and the public will take it hook line and sinker. In the UK, audiences are more likely to make up their own minds and see the show before passing judgment. But its stage history since then has been patchy and inconclusive. This new production from The Grey Area and Alex Conder bubbles with confidence and a sureness of touch so typical of a Sondheim musical. 

The story is based on a book by Sondheim’s frequent collaborator Arthur Laurents who also co-wrote West Side Story. Set in an imaginary town that has gone bankrupt, the only growth area is the local mental hospital charmingly known as the ‘Cookie Jar’. The town is controlled by duplicitous Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Alex Young) with her devoted flunkies in attendance; Comptroller Schub (Danny Lane), Treasurer Cooley (Samuel Clifford) and Police Chief Magruder (Renan Teodoro). Schub has a plan to save Cora’s administration and she quickly agrees if it makes her popular again. A rock on the edge of town has miraculously released a spring of water and word soon spreads of its healing powers. Cora can see the benefits but Nurse Fay Apple (Chrystine Symone) is far from convinced. The mysterious J. Bowden Hapgood (Jordan Broatch) arrives on the scene and takes an interest in the spring. 

The narrative is surprisingly complex and alights on issues relating to diversity and inclusion that would have been alien to audiences in the 1960s. The notion that someone could be isolated just because they are different was years ahead of its time. Modern audiences are much better equipped to deal with the subtleties of the subject, and now seems the time for this musical to flourish. Unsurprisingly, the songs overshadow the story as Sondheim’s skill for bright, insightful and witty lyrics comes to the fore. The score is hugely reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein, the third genius who co-created West Side Story. It mainly sits on a cool jazz groove and visits a variety of Latin influences along the way. The cast are excellent and works effectively as an ensemble. All are note-perfect, especially Alex Young and Chrystine Symone in the principal roles. This feels like a new Stephen Sondheim musical but has taken 58 years to properly arrive!

Review by Brian Penn 

Rating: ★★★★ 

Seat: B7 | Price of Ticket: £27.50/£22 concessions

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