MUSICAL Anyone Can Whistle Covent Garden Festival

If everyone who claims to have seen the original 1964 run of Anyone Can Whistle really did attend, the show would have been a smash. It wasn't. Having written the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy and gone solo with words and music for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Stephen Sondheim's famous floperoo, featuring Angela Lansbury's barnstorming Broadway debut, closed after nine performances. The recording didn't so much ensure its cult status as enshrine it and 33 years later, London's first glimpse of the show, in a concert performance, attracted a predictably packed house of worshippers.

Whenever someone digs up a forgotten show, supporters scream "neglected masterpiece!", but I fear this one is unlikely to see the light of day. The European premiere in Cheltenham in the mid-Eighties proved veteran director George Abbott's famous dictum that the three things you have to get right in the musical are "the book, the book, and the book". For once, Arthur Laurents, who wrote Gypsy, musical theatre's finest libretto, went badly wrong.

Billed as "wild", it's the story of a town which fakes a miracle to boost the mayor's popularity and the public purse, and satirises everything from local government corruption to defence spending to the insanity of the so-called sane. Sondheim's work, however, is thrillingly ambitious and often staggeringly inventive, mixing stock elements of musical comedy with organised anarchy in the shape of huge chorus numbers. Entire blocks of narrative are set to music and interspersed with torchy solos, sweet ballads and witty point numbers.

Two years ago, Steve Asher produced a concert version at Carnegie Hall with the cast of his (and everyone else's) dreams. By comparison, the Covent Garden Festival line-up was distinctly underpowered. Stephanie Beacham was a deliciously droll narrator but even her drop-dead delivery couldn't disguise limp direction. The young chorus worked hard but a little artistic discipline would have made them a whole lot better. The band too could have done with more rigorous conducting.

Linzi Hateley, no stranger to flops having had the misfortune to star in the misbegotten musical Carrie, gave Fay lots of belt voice but scored highest when working least hard singing the beautifully spun title song. It was left to a marvellously relaxed Simon Green to give the performance of the night as Hapgood. With the role sung well (a feat never previously accomplished), whole sections of the score leapt sharply into focus. Sadly, in the key role, game Jenny Logan was vocally miscast, but as mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper who would have been better? After all, 'Twas she who sang her way into the nation's hearts doing the sublime Shake 'n' Vac.

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