by William Stevenson
Ed Dixon based his new musical on an English novel writen by John Cleland back in 1749. If you think that means the characters are prim and proper, think again. The scandalous book Fanny Hill tells the racy story of a very busy prostitute and was banned soon after its publication. In this country the novel was first banned in 1821, and again as recently as 1963. (In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it did not meet the standard for obscenity.) Dixon’s musical adaptation isn’t obscene either, but it is lusty, lubricious and very funny.
The titular heroine (Nancy Anderson) is a country girl from Lancashire who moves to London at 15 following the death of her parents. Pretty and naïve, she accepts an offer to live with Mrs. Brown (Patti Allison) and her bevy of “cousins.” Of course, Mrs. Brown’s home is what was then known as a bawdy house, and soon Fanny is being called on to entertain customers like the wizened but randy Mr. Croft (David Cromwell). Housemate Martha (Emily Skinner) befriends Fanny, promises to protect her and promptly seduces her too. Fanny flees Mrs. Brown’s and literally falls on–and falls for–a young sailor named Charles (Tony Yazbeck) who is just as innocent as Fanny. They quickly fall in love, marry and move with a Mr. Sneed (Michael J. Farina), but their happiness is short lived. Fanny returns to prostitution and becomes a leading practitioner of the world’s oldest profession.
I haven’t read Cleland’s notorious novel, but according to the press materials the book is more serious and more licentious (boasting 35 sex scenes) than Dixon’s humorous, lighthearted musical version. Dixon wrote the book, music and lyrics, and his adaptation is wittier than it is lewd. After someone mentions pets, for instance, Mrs. Brown slyly remarks, “I do love a Cockatoo.” There’s also a clever running joke involving one character making an aside to the audience and another character overhearing it.
The lyrics are as smart as the dialogue, and the music-a little bit Gilbert & Sullivan, a little bit Les Miz–suits the period. Most of the songs are short, upbeat and droll. The tunes aren’t easy to remember after the show, though, and the ballads aren’t as enjoyable as the comic numbers. If there’s one standout song, it’s Mrs. Brown’s saucy “Every Man in London,” which Allison milks it for all it’s worth.
In fact, Allison is a hoot whenever she’s on stage. Mrs. Brown isn’t exactly likable, but like Annie’s Miss Hannigan she’s lovably rotten. And Allison’s well-trained soprano comes in handy when Mrs. Brown shrieks with anger as well as when she hits high notes. I would say that Allison steals the show, except that David Cromwell is also wonderful in a few roles. In addition to the ancient Mr. Croft, Cromwell plays the aristocratic lech Lord Hereford, Father Norbert and other smaller parts. Most of the actors juggle multiple roles and make it look easy. The cast is full of strong singers, with Anderson and Skinner in fine form. As another lady of the evening, Christianne Tisdale does a nice job with “Phoebe’s Song,” supported by Skinner and Gina Ferrall. Rounding out the cast is Adam Monley, who has fun playing an amply endowed stable boy.
James Brennan’s direction accentuates the show’s cheeky sense of humor and keeps things moving along briskly. The multilevel wooden set designed by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case is rather elaborate for the York Theatre Company. It’s economical too, since a carriage gets deconstructed and turns into a bed. Stan Tucker serves as musical director of the three-person orchestra, and as usual it’s great to hear unamplified singing in the York’s cozy space.
The whole cast and production is first-rate, but Dixon deserves a large part of the credit. A veteran actor (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Under the Bridge), Dixon has recently become a prolific writer. His Richard Cory, seen at last fall’s New York Musical Theatre Festival, was a serious, tightly controlled chamber opera. Fanny Hill is a much more freewheeling and fun adaptation. It’s a delightfully risqué business that might make you want to pick up Cleland’s naughty novel.