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David Cromwell, Patti Allison,
and Nancy Anderson in Fanny Hill
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
It's hard to imagine while watching Fanny Hill that its source material, John Cleland's famed 18th-century erotic novel, was banned in this country just 40 years ago. But that may be because Ed Dixon's musical version of the once-notorious book doesn't set out to shock -- it sets out to charm. And what starts out as a gentle satire ends up with its tongue so far in its cheek I'm amazed it doesn't come out the other side. As it happens, though, a little more of that cheekiness, especially in the first act, would go a long way to making this show a complete delight. In its current state, it's simply a fun diversion.

To make that happen, Dixon, (who wrote the show's book, music, and lyrics) needs to cut to the chase. Fanny's journey from poor country girl to unwilling London prostitute takes up a bit too much time, while her rise to the most famous prostitute in London gets short shrift. Fanny -- played by the delectable Nancy Anderson with just the right touch of unbelievable naivete -- is so incredibly dim she doesn't even realize that her new benefactor, Mrs. Brown (the wonderful Patti Allison) isn't entirely motherly, that her new "home" is actually a bordello, and that there's no such thing in life as a free room.

After nervously putting off her first client, Fanny escapes Mrs. Brown's clutches -- with her virginity amazingly intact -- and falls literally in love with Charles (Tony Yazbeck), a foppish sailor on leave from his ship. The two settle into a month of "wedded bliss," but Charles is kidnapped by his shipmates and a penniless Fanny is forced to return to the bordello. Soon enough, she not only develops an enthusiasm for her work, but parlays it into wealth and power. And true happiness, it turns out, is just one more twist of fate away.

Dixon's score is rarely less than pleasing -- if a little too insistent on easy rhymes -- and even occasionally inspiring, such as the bawdy second-act showstopper "Every Man in London," superbly delivered by Alllison, or the delicious "Tea Service," in which Allison and the ladies of the house (Christianne Tisdale, Gina Ferrall, and the sadly underused Emily Skinner) instruct Fanny on how to behave with a client. Without question, all of the music would sound better if the orchestra consisted of more than three players, as it does here.

And therein lies the biggest problem of all. The show isn't really being seen or heard to its best advantage at the York. Fanny Hill boasts a larger cast (nine) and more elaborate scenery and costumes (by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case) than the York has seen in many moons -- in large part, because the show has commercial co-producers -- but it nonetheless seems both overcrowded and underpopuated on the York's tiny stage. Moreover, director James Brennan likely had no choice but to use the show's supporting cast of eight to play the show's 12 supporting roles (as dictated by the script) as well as various townspeople, sailors, and the like. But frankly, all that doubling and tripling gets as exhausting for the audience as it does the actors.

While Brennan has done exemplary work with show's female cast, the male side of the equation doesn't always compute. The adorable Adam Monley is very fine as the extremely well-endowed Will Plenty, and Michael J. Farina (who seems to have recovered from playing God in In My Life) is good as both the kindly Mr. Sneed and the masochistic Mr. Barville. But David Cromwell doesn't do enough to distinguish the three old geezers he plays from one another. And Yazbeck, who is a joy to both look at and listen to, needs to ratch up the silliness; too often, he appears to be auditioning for the role of Antony in Sweeney Todd.

With Dixon having spent so many years as the innkeeper Thérnadier in Les Miserables, it's not surprising that he chose to adapt a property where nobody (well, nobody important) dies and there really is a happy ending. Personally, I'd love to see Fanny Hill have its own happy ending: a full-scale -- and somewhat revised -- Off-Broadway production that could truly show off its strengths.

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