Forty-six years after its ignoble Broadway debut, Stephen Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle” roars back into town triumphant. Triumphant with an asterisk, perhaps; this wild and crazy musical, circa 1964, retains its problems — most especially the libretto by Arthur Laurents, which figuratively and literally places the audience in the crazy house. But Sondheim’s remarkable early score is served up like a jewel on a velvet cushion, with extraordinary performances from three of Broadway’s finest current-day stars. This Encores! presentation may not have the extended commercial life of Encores! alum “Chicago,” but it’s still a don’t-miss attraction for musical theater fans.
Donna Murphy outdoes herself as the despicable mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper. While the role was memorably originated by the estimable Angela Lansbury, Murphy creates a monumental musical comedy monsteress. Taking her cue from a Kay Thompson-style section in her opening number, Murphy seems to have channeled Thompson for her portrayal. Murphy combines the stylish Thompson with a satiric cartoon of that more recent beleaguered small town mayoress, the one who used to keep her wary eye on diabolical Russia from her kitchen window.
Raul Esparza gives an especially winning, well-controlled performance as the out-of-control J. Bowden Hapgood. Sutton Foster, as the repressed heroine and nurse, also scores big with her two ballads, “There Won’t Be Trumpets” (which was cut before the Broadway opening) and “Anyone Can Whistle.”
Matching the stars in making an arresting “Whistle” is Casey Nicholaw (of “The Drowsy Chaperone”). His direction streamlines and clarifies the unwieldy piece, while his choreography is a highlight of the evening — not just in the big “Cookie Chase” ballet but throughout the proceedings. This is some of the funniest stage dancing we’ve seen in some time, with special contributions from Ms. Murphy’s backup boys (Clyde Alves, Grasan Kingsberry, Eric Sciotto, Anthony Wayne).
On the comedy side, Edward Hibbert and Jeff Blumenkranz provide key contributions, while musical director Rob Berman expertly handles the difficult score, featuring orchestrations by Don Walker and dance arrangements by Betty Walberg. Show works far better than it did at Carnegie Hall in 1995, when the likes of Bernadette Peters and Madeline Kahn couldn’t make much sense of it.
Script has been somewhat trimmed by David Ives but remains troublesome. After an outrageous but inspired first act, nothing much happens; Foster returns in red dress with zany wig and zany French accent, and that takes care of the next twenty minutes.
The built-in problems make it impossible to tie the score to a new-and-improved book, alas. But it is the songs and musical sequences that matter, and this concert version of “Anyone Can Whistle” is a musical highlight of the current legit season.