Muhlenberg Celebrates 50th Anniversary Of Sondheim’s ‘Anyone Can Whistle’

Logo of Muhlenberg College

Logo of Muhlenberg College (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Allentown, PA – Stephen Sondheim’s rarely produced musical comedy “Anyone Can Whistle” will get a Fiftieth Anniversary production at the Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance Department, Oct. 24 – Nov. 2. An absurdist satire about insanity, conformity, miracles, and local government, the 1964 musical is also a great love story, according to director Beth Schachter, and has become a cult classic among musical theater fans.

“The music is quite lovely,” says Schachter, a member of the theater faculty at Muhlenberg, and the chair of the Theatre & Dance Department. “The humor is also very enjoyable. The show is witty in a way that many musicals are not.

“Anyone Can Whistle” plays on the stage of the Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts. Tickets and information are available at http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre and 484-664-3333.

The show tells the story of a bankrupt town with a corrupt mayoress, in which the only business still thriving is Dr. Detmold’s Sanitarium for the Socially Pressured — known locally as The Cookie Jar. The town needs a miracle — which is precisely what it gets when a local girl licks a rock and water gushes out. Bingo! A modern-day Lourdes, with the tourist trade to boot. (The miracle was staged by the mayor’s cronies, of course.)

Things get even more complicated when the Cookie Jar patients get mixed up with the pilgrims, and no one can tell who’s crazy and who isn’t — not that it was entirely clear to begin with.

The show satirizes issues and attitudes that are still very much germane 50 years later, Schachter says: issues of gender norms and gender equality, questions of individuality and conformity, social protest and civil disobedience.

“The show argues for standing up for change and not waiting for the people in charge to change things for you,” she says. “That’s something that appeals to me, as the people of Hong Kong flood the streets with their umbrellas in support of democracy.”

Schachter says the show offers a particularly sophisticated and compelling depiction of women, with two powerful female characters in Fay, a nurse who works at the Cookie Jar, and Cora, the town’s mayor.

“The show is interested in women, in their desires, ambitions, and wishes,” she says, “which is part of the reason I like it so much.”

Senior Samantha Simon, from Hawthorne, N.J., plays the central role of Cora — a villain of the piece, but a complicated character nevertheless. Simon appeared last fall as Rosa Bud in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

“Samantha is having a terrific time playing this hilarious villainess,” Schachter says. “She is a powerful presence on stage. She really takes over.”

Sondheim wrote “Anyone Can Whistle” very early in his career as a composer. He had contributed lyrics to the hits “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” but had only written the score for one Broadway show, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The show closed after nine performances, but went on to become a cult favorite among musical theater fans, particularly Sondheim-philes. The show offers a preview of the complex melodies and innovative structures that characterize the composer’s later shows.

“‘Whistle’ marks the beginning of Sondheim’s distinctive voice and style,” Schachter says. “He develops that style much further in his mature work, but it’s fascinating to see this early expression of his talents as a composer.”

Tim Averill designs the scenery, which has “a zany, cartoony, fairy-tale feel to it,” Schachter says. “We were inspired by the set of ‘Laugh-In,’ with its bright colors and crazy angles.” The choreography, by Lynn Wiener, is similarly outlandish, highlighted by a comic ballet in which the ballerinas play deputies in an epic chase scene — on pointe.

“It’s a total hoot,” Schachter says. “But it’s a hoot with something to say, and what it has to say is still interesting and relevant 50 years later. It has been a revelation for me.”

Muhlenberg College is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa. The college offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance. The Princeton Review ranked Muhlenberg’s theater program in the top twelve in the nation for seven years in a row, and Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theater and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States. Muhlenberg is one of only eight colleges to be listed in Fiske for both theater and dance.

Performances of “Anyone Can Whistle” are Oct. 24 – Nov. 2. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, with an additional 2 p.m. show on Saturday, Oct. 25. Regular admission tickets are $22. Tickets for youth and LVAIC students and staff are $8. Group and season subscription rates are available.

Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre or by phone at 484-664-3333. Performances are in the Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.

Muhlenberg’s 30th summer season continues with ‘Spelling Bee’ musical

Allentown, Pa. (June 29, 2010) — Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre will celebrate cerebration with the second mainstage production of its 30th season: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The musical comedy runs July 14 through Aug. 1, in the Dorothy Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance.

Telling the story of six adolescent outsiders who compete for the title of Putnam County Spelling Bee champion, “Spelling Bee” won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical and was nominated for Best Musical and Best Score. The New York Times called it “effortlessly endearing.”

The show includes guest spellers from the audience each night, including a “celebrity guest speller” for each performance. Notables will include Allentown mayor Ed Pawlowski, National Public Radio host Neal Conan, and Morning Call columnist Bill White. [A complete list appears below.]

“The show is highly unpredictable,” says Bill Mutimer, the show’s director and choreographer. “On any given night, the direction it goes depends on the guest spellers and the choices that the cast makes. It has a kind of madcap, improvisational energy.

“But at the same time,” Mutimer continues, “the show lets you sympathize with these six vulnerable kids, going through a really tough time in their lives. I mean, who would choose to go back to their middle school days? So it’s awkward and endearing and hilarious, all at once.”

“Spelling Bee” tells the story of six unfortunate pre-teens who try, as spelling bee contestants, to wrench a moment’s dignity from the awkward misery of their pubescent lives. William Barfée — it rhymes with “parfait” — played by Gabriel Martinez, has one working nostril and a magic foot that helps him with his spelling. Leaf Coneybear (Andrew Clark), is the child of hippie parents and doing his best to cope with their low expectations for him. Marcy Park (Jessica Anne Cox) speaks six languages but can’t meet a boy in any of them.

Olive Ostrovsky (Emily Spadaford) is the mousy but courageous young ingenue, whose mom is at an ashram in India, and whose dad is working late as usual. Chip Tolentino (Joe Spiotta) is last year’s champion, struggling with his hormones and his powers of concentration. The pigtailed Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Anna Gothard) is up on current events and burdened by her two dads’ expectations.

“It has been a beautiful process getting in touch with my inner 10-year-old child,” Gothard says. “‘Spelling Bee’ reminds me of the wonderful innocence that children possess — which I forgot I once possessed as well.”

The adults in the room include Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Patrick M. Brady); comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney (Matthew S. Walczer), who consoles those who get the ding; and moderator Rona Lisa Perretti (Traci Ceschin), reliving her own bee glory.

The show features a score by William Finn, Tony Award winner for “Falsettos,” and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. Ken Butler is the musical director for the production, Matthew Allar designs the set, Lex Gurst designs costumes, John McKernon designs lights, and Paul E. Theisen Jr. designs sound. Julia Korzeniewski is the production stage manager.

The celebrity guest spellers for the production are:

– Amy Burkett, host of “Tempo InDepth” and senior vice president of production on PBS39, July 14

 – Randy Helm, Muhlenberg College president, July 15

– Mark Stutz, director of visual and performing arts for the Parkland School District, July 16

– Neal Conan, radio journalist and host of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” July 17

– Rebecca Walz, development and public relations director for WDIY-FM, Lehigh Valley community public radio, July 18

– Randall Forte, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council, July 21

– A.J. Irvin, actor, award-winning New York cabaret performer, and Muhlenberg alumnus, July 22

– Brooks Joyner, Priscilla Payne Hurd president and CEO of the Allentown Art Museum, July 23

– Michael Fegley, director of marketing, Fegley’s Brew Works, July 24

– Joan Barber, actor, singer, and voice teacher — played Katisha in the original 1981 Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre production of “The Mikado” — July 25

– Sharon Lee Glassman, president of Civic Theatre of Allentown and former Emmaus High School teacher and director, July 28

– Myra Yellin Outwater, Allentown Morning Call theater columnist, July 29

– Ed Pawlowski, mayor of Allentown, July 30

– Ellen Baker Ghelardi, executive director of the Dexter F. and Dorothy H. Baker Foundation, July 31

– Bill White, Allentown Morning Call columnist, Aug. 1.

The show is the second mainstage production of Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre’s 30th season. The season also features Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” which played June 16 through July 3, and the children’s musical “Schoolhouse Rock Live!” which continues through July 31.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” plays July 14 through Aug. 1, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. While not explicit, the show does deal in part with the turbulent inner life of the pubescent boy, and so is recommended for ages 10 and up.

Ticket prices for July 14-17 are: regular admission, $32; seniors, $28; full-time students, $18; children, $13. Prices for July 18 through Aug. 1 are: regular admission $38; seniors, $34; full-time students, $20; children, $15.

The Trexler Pavilion is located at 2400 Chew Street, Allentown. 

Tickets are available from the box office, in person or at 484-664-3333,  484-664-3333 or online at http://www.summerbroadway.org.