This weekend, New York audiences are in for a treat. Encores!, a concert series of rarely performed American musicals, is currently staging the experimental Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents musical, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. The show, which has performances for this weekend only, stars Tony winner (and multiple nominee) Sutton Foster as Nurse Fay Apple, four-time Tony nominee Raul Esparza as the bewildering Hapgood, and two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy as the ethically ambiguous Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper.
The show very much captures the spirit of the 1960s, when it was seen on Broadway. The story centers on a town suffering severe economic hardship and its mayor, Cora Hoover Hooper, who willingly complies with a scheme to generate more income while boosting the population’s spirits. The result, a faked miracle, works perhaps a little too perfectly; Nurse Fay Apple insists that her patients at the asylum have the chance for the miracle to cure them, just like everyone else. The Mayoress and her minions, however, quickly realize that when the patients – called Cookies – aren’t cured, it’ll expose their trick and ruin the miracle. So when the Cookies blend into the general crowd – and when Fay refuses to disclose the names of her patients, the Mayoress is at a loss…until the self-proclaimed psychiatrist’s new assistant, Hapgood, shows up.
ANYONE CAN WHISTLE is an unusual show structurally. There are two big sequences that rely more on dance than many of the other musicals Sondheim has worked on as a composer/lyricist: “Simple,” in which Hapgood elaborately sorts people into Group A and Group 1, and “The Cookie Chase,” where the Mayor and her cohorts round up the Cookies. It’s interesting and somewhat refreshing to see such numbers in show with so many ideas. The show tackles a range of issues that confronted Americans in the ’60s, such as conformity, balancing science and faith, organized religion, governmental corruption, and the benefits of taking a risk. The “Simple” sequence, probably the most confusing element of the show, is where the writers’ subversiveness truly comes into play. As Hapgood fires off questions and commands, even the Mayoress and her agents begin to doubt their own sanity. Hapgood, while seemingly on the side of the Cookies – he claims to be sorting the sane from the insane, yet there’s no apparent difference between the two groups – exploits their conformist inclinations by easily assuming leadership over them, issuing orders for them to do nonsensical acts, like rubbing their stomachs and patting their heads.
Raul Esparza is a charming, somewhat mischievous Hapgood, who works well with his other two leads. Donna Murphy’s Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper is manic and fun-loving; her production numbers and interactions with her dancing boys add to the show’s humor, and her harmlessness furthers the show’s ambiguity. It’s hard to hate the Mayoress when she simply wants to be loved, and when she does seem to genuinely want her people to be happy. Similarly, Hapgood, while instantly likable, is guilty of pulling his own tricks. Sutton Foster completes the trio of leads with her earnest yet grounded Nurse Fay Apple. Foster, who has the thrill of singing “There Won’t Be Trumpets” and “Anyone Can Whistle,” more than does both those famous numbers justice.
ANYONE CAN WHISTLE is a must for any Sondheim fan, any fan of modern musical theatre, and anyone interested in a glimpse into the pysche of the early 1960s. Performances end this Sunday, so get your tickets while you can.