Anyone Can Whistle

Anyone Can Whistle is a famous flop: It played for only nine performances on Broadway. After seeing the City Centers Encores staged concert version, I can’t say I that share the original audience’s distaste …but I understand.

The loose plot of the satirical show resounds today: Corrupt politicians and townspeople looking for a savior. Early in the show, the mayoress asks her lackees if the plan they just concocted will work. One of them responds, “Of course, it’s unethical!” This little exchange was met with howling laughter from the audience. Too bad it’s true.

The finer plot points aren’t too important in this concert version. If this were a fully mounted revival, the book, by Arthur Laurents, could stand to be retooled and fleshed out. Laurents drew a good floor plan, but now the bricks and mortar (and the other thing) need to be put into place. Lucky for me, it was the concert version and so most of the entertainment came from the musical numbers.

This Stephen Sondheim musical has plenty of enjoyable ditties and they were all expertly presented. Donna Murphy as the mayoress was fantastic. The venerable stage and screen vet commands the stage and spins across it with just the right mix of cheekiness and aplomb. Sutton Foster, first as a nurse then as the nurse disguised as a French vixen, is wonderful. She has such a rich, powerful voice that when she says, “As a free woman, I talk long and loud,” you think, “Amen!” But most of all, Raul Esparza is incredible. He’s one of the most versatile, talented (and handsome!) leading men on Broadway. I love listening to him sing but up until seeing him in Whistle, I’d never heard him sing live on stage. (And I mean really sing. He hummed a few bars in Twelfth Night, part of last summer’s Shakespeare in the Park, but that was just a very little tease.) What a treat it was! (If you’re unfamiliar, fire up your Netflix account and instantly watch the recording of the Company revival he starred in a few seasons ago. Watch him sing “Being Alive.” Tell me he wasn’t robbed of a Tony!) Esparza is charming, seductive and always in the moment on stage, and though I was sitting all the way in the back of a huge cavernous theatre his performance made me feel like he was putting on a show just for me.

During one of the numbers, I came out of my Raul Esparza trance just long enough to be time-warped back to my childhood: I was nine(ish) and laying on my parents’ bedroom floor; my mother was doing something in the room and I was hanging out by her tape player, which, at the moment, was playing one of her Barbra Streisand tapes. Babs was singing “Everybody Says Don’t.” Back in New York circa now, when Esparza finished singing the same tune, I thought, “Am I hallucinating? Did Babs sing that song?” Thankfully, the next day my mother assured me that I was not crazy and that Ms. Streisand had, in fact, covered that song. (Thanks, mom!)

Anyone Can Whistle isn’t the greatest book musical or satirical theatrical work, but there are a handful of standout songs that make concert versions a delightful way to spend the evening.