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Ruth Williamson (front), with
(l to r) Jay Willick, Joe Hart, and
Ira Denmark in Anyone Can Whistle
(Photo: Ed Krieger)
Anyone Can Whistle opened in 1964 and ran for nine days. The concepts of non-conformity and the insanity of not embracing the world's morés without question were apparently too foreign for audiences of the day to grasp. Three years before "The Summer of Love" heralded the onset of hippiedom, New York's intelligentsia were deaf to the drums of the coming revolution, even when those drums were beaten by the brilliant Stephen Sondheim. Forty years later, as America teeters on the brink of another battle and pro- and anti-war rhetoric peppers the air, it's time for the message of Anyone Can Whistle to be heard and understood, even if that involves wading through the muddled theorems of Arthur Laurents's revised book for the show in the current Theatre Musical Guild production in Los Angeles.

A small, corrupt town has gone bankrupt, and the townspeople are calling for the blood of Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper (Ruth Williamson). In desperation, Hooper goes along with her cabinet on a scheme to delude religious fanatics into believing that water is flowing from a rock in the center of town. Pilgrims come from around the country to sample these waters, thereby bloating the town's treasury. Two idealists could thwart the plan: a nurse (Misty Cotton) at the local asylum, known as "The Cookie Jar," and a batty visiting doctor (John Bisom). The nurse frees her patients ("cookies") to wander the town, making it impossible for the administration to tell the "crazies" from the "normals." Isn't the entire town already insane? And what is insanity -- a streak of individuality, or a pathological lack of morals?

Sondheim's melodies have a nostalgic '60s feel, combining lounge music with a Broadway-standard-type sound. The master experimented with this score, using subtext to craft something adult and contemplative. A perfect example is the song "Simple": It's mind-twisting metaphysics ("The opposite of left is right, the opposite of right is wrong, so everything that's left is wrong, right?") were probably viewed by some as an invitation to anarchy in 1964.

Laurents has some clever things to say about the societal dangers of "following the fold," but his book lacks humor and some of the satire is dulled by the characters' silly shenanigans. Despite the failings of the script, the Theater Musical Guild's Anyone Can Whistle rises above the material. From moment one, conductor Christopher Lavely and his orchestra establish a three-ring-circus atmosphere. And when the actors take stage with their cartoonish facial expressions, we're in John Waters territory.

The energetic performers wrap their tongues around Sondheim's tricky lyrics with zeal. As Nurse Apple, earnest Misty Cotton belts out the triumphant "There Won't Be Trumpets" with a striking voice, at once passionate and compassionate. As Doctor Hapgood, John Bisom holds the show together with charisma and a nutty sincerity, though he isn't a very strong singer. Casting him is risky because Hapgood has the most complex song to sing: "Everybody Says Don't." Still, with his suave demeanor and humongous grin, Bisom seems made for the role. Cotton and Bisom have the chemistry of a married couple rediscovering their sexuality -- an uncommon mixture of domesticity and eroticism, like Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore experimenting with the Kama Sutra.

John Bisom and Misty Cotton
in Anyone Can Whistle
(Photo: Ed Krieger)
Ruth Williamson is elegant as the comical villainess Cora Hoover Hooper, resembling Carol Lawrence yet with the '60s irreverence of Phyllis Diller; her body moves as though each joint were on springs. As members of the mayoress's cabinet, Joe Hart, Ira Denmark, and Jay Willick function as her personal stooges. Hart, as the corpulent Comptroller Schub, slithers about bombastically in a lime green, polyester suit; Denmark plays the slippery treasurer as part Jim Bakker, part Riddler; and Willick's chief of police would be truly menacing if the character had an ounce of gray matter.

As the loopy head of the "Cookie Jar," Roy Leake, Jr. amusingly can't seem to set his stethoscope correctly around his neck nor fit his fingers into the surgical gloves he wears. Jennie Fahn plays Baby Joan (a reference to Baby June in the previous Sondheim-Laurents collaboration Gypsy?) with a squeaky voice and pigtails, sort of a bad seed on crack. There is no clumped-together chorus in this production; each individual is given a moment to shine vocally or in pantomime. A major standout is TJ Dawson, who spends the entire show looking as if he had sucked on helium for an hour before the curtain went up.

Costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg has crafted some smashing, reversible outfits for Williamson. And subtleties of costuming key us in on the characters' quirks; for example, we know that Hapgood is a non-conformist (hence "insane") because he wears a suit and tie without a belt. Evan A. Bartoletti's multicolored sets are like something you'd expect to see on Sesame Street in hell. The lighting design of Steven Young and Lisa D. Katz is unobtrusive, with few tricks; pink, blue, and peach gels complement the wild sets and the luminous performers.

Anyone Can Whistle is not a heavy dance show; but for the "Cookie Chase Ballet," choreographer Larry Sousa has adeptly reinvented Jerome Robbins's "Mack Sennett Ballet" from High Button Shoes and has created a lively piece with its own merits. Director Michael Michetti has encouraged the actors to taunt and flirt with the audience members, thereby stealing their fourth-wall security blanket. The show is determined to keep us nervous, which is a double-edged sword; while the power to evoke a response is a key ingredient of art, a musical comedy audience should be relaxed enough to laugh and, well, whistle.

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