Donna Murphy in Anyone Can Whistle
(© Carol Rosegg)
Donna Murphy in Anyone Can Whistle
(© Carol Rosegg)
Even after 46 years, Anyone Can Whistle, with book by Arthur Laurents and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, still feels unabashedly and joyously experimental. The show has strengths and weaknesses galore, and on some levels, one of its messages -- that conformity should be avoided at all costs -- seems to demand that it contain both.

What's marvelous is not just that Whistle is being presented by City Center Encores! through Sunday (which just happens to be the anniversary of the show's closing after nine performances in 1964), but that director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw has delivered a spirited production headlined by a trio of pitch-perfect artists, all of whom fearlessly dive into this wonky show.

Whistle (whose chaotic script has been judiciously trimmed by David Ives) is set in a bankrupt town that's run by Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Donna Murphy). To raise some much-needed revenues, the city's comptroller, Schub (a gently lascivious and malicious Edward Hibbert), has devised a plan to create a "miracle": a rock that mysteriously begins to spurt supposedly healing waters. Soon, "pilgrims" descend to experience the event -- as does nurse Fay Apple (Sutton Foster), who brings with her the inmates of The Cookie Jar, the local asylum.

When she and her charges (known as "Cookies") are turned away by Schub and his cronies (played with appealing cartoonishness by Jeff Blumenkrantz and John Ellison Conlee), who fear that when the inmates aren't cured, the hoax will be discovered, Fay vows to reveal the plot herself. When the Cookies mix in with the normal populace, Cora and Schub find that they have to turn to Hapgood (Raul Esparza), the asylum's newly arrived assistant director, to sort things out. He only makes matters worse, dividing everyone into two equally insane groups, and soon becomes the town's savior.

Throughout the show, Murphy commands the stage with the prowess of a prize fighter who has just happened to have developed a razzmatazz Las Vegas act. Looking smashing in some showy period costumes by Gregg Barnes -- and often accompanied by four sexy chorus boys (Clyde Alves, Grasan Kingsberry, Eric Sciotto, Anthony Wayne) -- Murphy delivers some of Sondheim's most intricate melodies with unquestionable force, even as she revels in the character's unscrupulousness. What's perhaps most impressive is her ability to make even the most harmonically challenging song sound exquisitely melodious.

Foster blends charm, vulnerability and kookiness in a breathtakingly moving manner. Additionally, she delivers some of the most familiar songs in the show, including its haunting title song and "There Won't Be Trumpets," with precision and clarion power. When she temporarily transforms into a French vamp, Foster's performance thoroughly amuses. Moreover, as Esparza's winningly goofy and beautifully sung Hapgood -- who just happens to arrive to a trumpet fanfare -- attempts to extricate Fay from her reserved shell, one can't help but cheer both his efforts and the burgeoning relationship the two share.

While Nicholaw's clever production gleefully embraces Laurents' almost willfully disjointed book, it's his choreography that truly stands out. His work on "The Cookie Chase," a comic ballet that finds Cora and her cronies trying to imprison the town's populace, is particularly stunning. The extended sequence references classical ballet, modern dance, and Broadway. When the oversize butterfly nets and a girl on roller-skates arrive on stage, the world of Whistle is not only grandly riotous, it's also begun to feel somehow completely normal.