It's possible to fashion a tuneful and hilarious musical around the idea of corrupt city leaders, a depressed population, and a monumental water event, as Urinetown proved. It's also possible to make a mess of similar elements, as is shown in Anyone Can Whistle, now at Lakeland Community College's Civic Theatre.
Despite a cast studded with several talented professionals, this production goes wrong in so many ways that the splendid voices in key roles still can't save the enterprise.
This is one of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim's biggest flops, having closed on Broadway in 1964 after just nine performances. But if Lakeland's production had been on the stage back then, it might not have made it to intermission on opening night.
Director Martin Friedman is on something of a quest to present the entire Sondheim oeuvre; this is his 10th work by the composer. For that, he is to be commended. And he should also be applauded for having the guts to take on the monumentally flawed material in Whistle. That said, this production is a laborious and oddly unfunny exercise in failed satire.
The book by Arthur Laurents is built around a bankrupt town where the conniving mayor, Cora Hoover Hooper, is seeking a way to pump money back into her hapless burg.
As Hooper, Aimee Collier attacks her songs with a pleasing ferocity, but she doesn't create a juicy character we'd love to hate. Instead, she unpacks a pasted-on smile, shakes her boobs in everyone's faces, and generally opts for the easiest physical jokes every time.
Backed by a cabal of civic sleazebags — treasurer Coley (Thomas Hill), comptroller Schub (Trey Gilpin) and police chief Magruder (Aaron Elersich) — Hooper lands on the idea of promoting a magical, mysterious local water source as the fount of healing elixirs.
The fly in this tourist-generating ointment is Fay Apple, the nurse at the local sanitarium, which carries the unfortunate nickname of the Cookie Jar; its patients are thus dubbed the "cookies." Apple challenges the veracity of the miracle cure and releases her charges into the town, wanting them to partake of the waters. But Schub posits that if the cookies chug the stuff and don't improve — which Apple assumes — the nefarious plot will be ruined.
When a new cookie arrives in town — a handsome fellow named Hapgood — things get even weirder. Mistaken for a psychological expert, Hapgood is given the impossible task of separating the "normal" citizens from the others.
This, then, is the crux of the Laurents/Sondheim satire: that it's impossible to tell the inmates from the "normals," so why try to conform in the first place?
That comedic idea is undercut by Dan Folino, who plays the supposedly off-center Hapgood with such casual, studly ease that the laboriously set-up gag never catches fire. It is a blessing that Folino sings so gorgeously, especially in his solo "Everybody Says Don't," providing a necessary respite from the lumbering storyline.
As Fay Apple, Katherine DeBoer also sings beautifully. Indeed, her duet with Folino at the end of the show, "With So Little to Be Sure Of," is a little moment of magic. But when Apple goes in disguise as a "miracle investigator" from Lourdes, in an attempt to reveal the con game, her French-accented character — how you say? — fizzles.
If this show is to work, it must be performed with speed and pizzazz. Instead, the overall pacing varies from slow to petrified, with some scenes sporting canyon-like gaps between lines. The choreography by Jennifer Justice is so elementary — featuring simple struts and crossover steps — that the actors are never empowered to take flight.
If you love Sondheim and always wondered what Anyone Can Whistle might look like onstage, this is perhaps not the ideal example. But if you close your eyes, at least the singing will leave you with a smile.