Whistling back to the '60s with Sondheim

DORSET - I thought about telling you to be prepared, but that wouldn't help you at all. I think the best thing is for you to simply surrender to this new experience of the Dorset Players revival of "Anyone Can Whistle." During the first ten minutes, I knew I had to let it take me and do with me what it would, and I didn't look back. It was the best choice. This show is a fine, risky piece. The collaborative talents of the Players have joined their considerable forces to pull it off.

You'll find a very comprehensive Director's Note inserted into your program. Jeff Linebeck's decision to bring this musical to the Dorset Playhouse stage gives us an opportunity to experience an essential piece of theatre history in process. And a "process" it surely was, as it went through three titles and we can only imagine how many re-writes. By the time it fetched up on Broadway in April of 1964 at the Majestic Theatre, it was still an experiment on many levels, and one that would be seminal in changing American musical theatre. Stephen Sondheim was 34. "Anyone Can Whistle" ran for 12 previews and nine performances. Linebeck also includes a list of excerpts from the reviews, some prophetic in their praise and incisive understanding of Sondheim's particular emerging genius, others bluntly dismissive with that NYC harsh edge that is the coup de grace for a show. Linebeck's broad musical understanding and passion for the pivotal moment of change Sondheim took the leap into are brought to life in his casting choices.

The show begins in a small American town that is bankrupt. The town has an asylum, The Cookie Jar, and we are introduced to its inhabitants, the Cookies, when they sidle across the stage warbling "I'm Like the Bluebird." I must confess I kept wanting them to do that bit again, and I wanted to sidle along with them. In order to save the town from financial ruin, the mayor, Cora Hoover Hooper (Danielle Houston), and her henchmen, Treasurer Cooley (Paul Michael Brinker), Comptroller Schub (Todd Houston), and Chief Magruder (John Wayne Macri) manufacture a miracle, water flowing from a rock. This has the tourist trade booming in no time: "A miracle is a miracle if it works like a miracle." A bright spark of a nurse, Fay Apple (Amber Hamilton), brings the Cookies to the spring to test it for being miraculously curative so that the hoax will be revealed, but this backfires as the patients blend in seamlessly with the rest of the populace. No one can tell the difference between the patients and the rest of the crowd. Then, a new "doctor" arrives, J. Bowdon Hapgood (Tom Ferguson), and creates another experiment as he divides everyone into groups that further blur the differences between who is sane and who is not.

The cast has done a splendid job of knitting together the disparate and idiosyncratic fabric of this experiment. (There were times I thought to myself, 'Steve, what were you on?'). These actors are flexible vocally and know how to deliver caricature and make the shift back to character with a fluidity that is almost sinister. Danielle Houston slinks, snarls, seduces and connives, careening from Kim Cattrall, Gloria Swanson, Cruella DeVille and the Wicked Witch of the West, and the fulsome, healthy instrument that is her voice just doesn't quit. I think a litmus test of any musical theatre career is being able to sing the tonal trademark that is Sondheim. Danielle Houston, and indeed the rest of the cast, do this with ease and verve. Amber Hamilton combines vocal prowess with lithe, screwball comedy moves, and delivers bittersweet conflict in her duet with Tom Ferguson. Ferguson is masterfully ephemeral as Hapgood; there are times he is the most sane and solid presence on the stage, others when he is as elusive as phosphorescence on the water. He's like a post modern Elwood P. Dowd. Todd Houston is slicker than snake oil as the Comptroller, amoral but not too despicably so. His machinations are his courtship dance for Cora, and you can't help wanting him to succeed when you see his sharp edges melt around her. Paul Michael Brinker in his red pants, buzz cut and black horn rims is one hilarious sight to behold. His chameleon gift for physical comedy lets him take Treasurer Cooley to the edge and beyond. John Wayne Macri faffles, fudges, and bumbles from one law enforcement fraud to another, making Magruder walk the tightrope that gives out under him for a second, making him scramble wildly to return to what was never much of a safe balance to begin with.

There was a new voice and luminous face that kept drawing my attention whenever she appeared: Shannon Thompson (June, Ensemble). This young woman has a clarion quality to her voice, its liquid elasticity redolent of classic Broadway. Congratulations to Jeff Linebeck for this casting coup.

The Ensemble is a great amalgam of voices and play on light and dark. Mary McVey's costumes make a whimsical marriage of the Beat 50's and the free-fall 60's, and those red pants on Cooley were almost a character on their own! Terrie Robinson's deft, witty choreography highlights the absurdist quality in this show. Angie Merwin, assisted by the redoubtable Ed Cobb, has created a lighting scheme that would make Sondheim wish he had had it in '64. Stark spotlights give way to shadows which foment the limbo of characters that crave change and fear its inevitability.

I say give this show a go, and let it take you back to that breakthrough time of Sondheim's 60's. Anyone can whistle up a few tickets by calling the Box Office at 802-867-5777. Performances are May 23, 24, and 25 at 7:30 p., and May 26 at 2 p.m. Generously sponsored by Bickford Real Estate, Equinox Village, Mettowee Mill Nursery, and Orvis.


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