The jinx endures: The 1964 Philadelphia tryout of Sondheim’s much-anticipated new musical was plagued by dissent, illness and a dancer flying offstage and landing on a saxophone player, who died of a heart attack. After all that, audiences booed but the show went to Broadway, where it closed after nine perfs. Forty-one years later, the opening of this rarely revived show was postponed because three singers were sick; on opening night, talented newcomer Taryn Cagnina took over the lead for Christa Moore for the duration of the run. Would that she had a better vehicle for her big break. Just as it flopped before, “Anyone Can Whistle” flops again.
The plot of Arthur Laurents’ book begins when the “Mayoress” of Hooperville concocts a moneymaking scheme with the help of her three councilmen: They create a miraculous waterfall. The idea is to lure pilgrims to drink from the holy spring, charge them for the privilege and thus rescue the town’s finances.
Hooperville’s only going concern is a loony bin, Dr. Detmold’s Asylum for the Socially Pressured; it’s referred to as the Cookie Jar and the inmates as Cookies. There is a noble nurse (Cagnina) and a free spirit (Chuck Wagner) who teaches her the joy of life.
The few cheap satiric jabs at government and conformity feel tame and embarrassingly dated. This is the sort of plot often called “wacky” and “quirky” when the best description is just “weak.”
This concert version (no sets, orchestra onstage) satisfyingly delivers the couple of songs that survived the show, the title tune and “Everybody Says Don’t.” But the others — and there aren’t many — are forgettable. “There’s a Parade in Town” and “With So Little to Be Sure Of” should be moving but aren’t, and the audience sat unsmiling throughout, applauding with grudging politeness.
The old pros in the cast ham it up desperately, voices wobbling through the difficult tunes, accents abandoned and retrieved, while the young, energetic talent around them knock themselves out for a show best relegated to Sondheim fan club meetings.