Williamsburg Players has opened their 63rd season with the musical comedy Anyone Can Whistle by Stephen Sondheim. Co-Directors Rosemary Allmann and Marcia DiMattia guide this production through the zany twists and turns of a “crazy” plot.
Anyone Can Whistle is the story of a bankrupt town that needs financial salvation. The only profitable place in town is the mental hospital referred to as “The Cookie Jar” where the patients are called cookies and NEVER described as crazy or insane. The town leaders fabricate a miracle hoping to inject some revenue into the dying town only to see it go awry. Chaos ensues as the narrative explores mistaken identities, greed, and self-growth with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. The story itself is challenging to follow as it unfolds on stage. It helps to have a basic idea of the plot before the lights dim and the cast takes the stage.
Jennifer Lent Hamilton is cast as The Mayoress, Cora Hoover Hooper. She has a strong stage presence with a distinct voice and beautiful dance lines. Her style stands out on stage not better or worse than the cast as a whole, but with a different polish and pizzazz. She is surrounded by her partners in crime, Kenneth Kelley as Comptroller Schub, Kevin Clauberg as Treasurer Cooley, and Frank Connelly as Chief of Police Magruder. The four of them share a fun chemistry and some wicked innuendo.
Jessi DiPette returns to the Williamsburg Players stage as Nurse Fay Apple, the heroine of the story protecting her cookies from the evil greed of the Mayoress and her cronies. Her efforts are aided by the antics and guidance of J. Bowden Hapgood portrayed by Corey Mason. Both of them are fun to watch onstage either individually or together. Mason’s voice is clear and articulate. I can close my eyes and picture him acting in a classic radio show. DiPette’s strong vocals are a joy to hear through the different styles of songs throughout the production. The absurdity of her fake French accent is perfect for her performance.
The rest of the large cast fill the stage with various styles and abilities showcasing a lot of talent. In some instances, it felt as if the stage was overcrowded with superfluous bodies, while towards the end of the play there was a noticeable decreasing change in the number of townspeople in the production. This change added to part of the confusion of the story. It was difficult to understand how the cookies could hide in plain sight without the cover of the regular townspeople. That being said, it was obvious that the entire cast worked really hard to perform the choreography of the co-directors who doubled as the show’s choreographers. The dance numbers were crisp and in unison. The cast made performing those numbers seem effortless.
Another distraction of the production was the LED lighting. The lighting of the play has a strong, bright color palette which was a good choice, but during the performance of “Simple” the multiple rapid color changes created a strobe like effect that actually gave my daughter a headache that prevented her from being able to return to enjoy the second act after the intermission.
Award winning costume designer, Dylan George, was responsible for the on-stage fashion. I’m not certain if it was poor choices or following the vision of the directors, but the costumes seemed haphazard and didn’t pull the story together like most shows. There are a few notable pieces like The Mayoress’s transition day-to-night look, the opera singer’s classic burgundy dress, and Nurse Fay’s infamous red dress, but the majority of the costumes lacked inspiration and refinement. Those notable pieces scream George’s influence and remind you just how much talent the young man has locked away in his imagination. Unfortunately, the pale pastel palette of the majority of the costumes fought with the vivid LED lighting to draw the eye and failed to knock it out of the park while the lack of shapes muddied the overall look.
Ultimately the simplicity of the set, props, and transitions were effective and well done. The simplicity hides many of the challenges that affect all productions in the theatre world like inadequate space and lack of crew to assist with the show. Williamsburg Players show time and time again that their set designers know and understand the limits of their space and resources and use that understanding to create a vision for the audience to immerse themselves into for the performance. This production is no exception to that understanding.
Sondheim is notorious for having shows that are challenging to understand and follow. This musical is definitely true to Sondheim and challenges the audience to keep up with the story and follow along. I’m generally a fan of Sondheim, but this is not one of my favorites. Anyone Can Whistle was a bold choice to include in their season. The underlying social commentary of the show can be applied to current events. Neil Hollands said it best when he summarized the play with the following thought, “Imagine a place where leaders stage false events to attract attention but are soon caught up in the chaos they have created.” Ultimately the person sitting in the audience will have to decide just how close to home the theme resonates and if they should bring their own sharpie to expand their area of understanding.
Anyone Can Whistle is showing Thursday, Friday, and Saturday through 9/22/19. You can go to www.williamsburgplayers.org to purchase your tickets and see showtimes.