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A CurtainUp Review
Like much more erotic 18th century works (think Defoe's Moll Flanders, Fielding's Tom Jones, de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses) the memoir of the orphaned Fanny who went to London to seek her fortune and ended up as a prostitute and kept woman, has become tame stuff in the light of contemporary mores. Still, the novel remains in print and is available as a free e-text (see link below). None of the four film versions have achieved hit status, not the 1964 and 1995 American film, not the 1983 German version or the most erotic Swedish set one made in 1968.
Unlike Les Liaisons Dangereuses Fanny's story hasn't caught the fancy of any playwrights. Until now when it is making its Off-Broadway debut in the form of a musical -- with Ed Dixon ambitiously tackling libretto, lyrics and music, and that intrepid supporter of new musicals, The York Theatre Company, giving it an atypically lavishly staged productions. That nine-actor strong cast features some of the contemporary musical theater's most accomplished performers, most with Broadway credits. Leading the ensemble is Nancy Anderson who can claim the adjective adorable as her very own. But Anderson is not just a delectable looking blonde (in this show, a blonde courtesy of a corkscrew curl wig), but a versatile actress (that versatility first displayed at this very same theater when she played all the women in Jolson) with a gorgeous and powerful soprano voice.
Dixon's musical adaptation, while basically true to the memoir format of Cleland's novel, has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and takes advantage of as many opportunities for double entendres as possible. James Brennan, who also directed Dixon's more somber but very satisfying Richard Cory at the last New York Music Festival (see link below), is equally at home with this more popular audience geared comic romp.
The actors all extend their roles to do ensemble duty, some playing more than one character. The prime example of a dual role player is the always reliable David Cromwell who lustily (and lustfully) plays all except one of the clients who visit Mrs. Brown and her "ladies of pleasure." The one other pleasure seeker, the masochistic Mr. Barville, is played to the hilt by Michael J. Farina who also doubles as a greedy landlord named Mr. Sneed.
Anderson is ideally cast as the innocent abroad, and so are Patti Allison as the opportunistic, tough Mrs. Brown and the members of her household: Christiane Tisdale as Fanny's old friend Phoebe; Emily Skinner as Martha the maid "who sometimes works downstairs;" Gina Ferral as Esther, a big girl (she also plays Count Brodski, a cross-dressing Countess). As Candide had to endure separation from his beloved, so must Fanny. The male counterpart of Cunegonde is a young sailor, another appealing and well-sung performance by Tony Yazbeck, a sailor whose name is Charles Waneigh (given that Waneigh is pronounced like Fanny -- it doesn't take much guesswork to figure out that Fanny must marry Waneigh if we're to have an all's well that ends well finale with a funny punch line). To help Fanny assuage boredom as a rich nobelman's country mistress, there's also Adam Monley as the slyly named Will Plenty.
Though not sung through, the plot is primarily song driven, with some wonderfully melodic ensemble numbers, solos and duets. As is not unusual when a musical's creator multi-tasks, not all the tasks are executed with equal success. In Dixon's case, the lyrics are not on a par with the music. Patti Allison's Mrs. Brown is gifted with the lyric that best captures the tongue-in-cheek, double-entendre flavor, in a show-stopping second act song titled "Every Man in London," Here's a sample: "I've had every man in London, I confess/And there's not a one worth lifting up your dress/Whether short or fat or tall, they're all uniformly small/In a way that makes you say how less is less." Fanny's "Honor Lost" is another of the wittier lyrics (see the quote at the top of this review). A Gilbert & Sullivanish ditty by Waneigh and his mates is also great fun.
Michael Bottari and Ronald Case's scenic design and costumes more than justify the company's exceeding its usually modest production budget. The weathered wood two-tiered set smartly accommodates a variety of settings. Props metamorphose from one function to another before our eyes -- for example, the clip-clopping carriage (complete with turning wheels) that transports Fanny from her country home to the big city, is smoothly disassembled and transformed into a table. Enough room has been left room at the side and read of the stage for the excellent three piece orchestra, with musical director Stan Tucker at the piano.
With four producers listed, it's clear that these topnotch actors and designers have been assembled with the hope that Fanny Hill will follow in the footsteps of Souvenir and The Musical of Musicals with a life beyond the York's home at Saint Peter's. But show business being the horse race it is, don't bank on it. If you want see and hear the girl who sought her fortune sing, check it out before its designated March 26th closing.
To get a Free e-text of the Cleland novel, go to http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/CleMemo.html
For my review of Ed Dixon's Richard Corey, see our NYMusic Festival page
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Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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