by Mark Blankenship
A musical can’t be all bad when it features a cheery 18th century German prostitute with a taste for S&M. The Teutonic strumpet — who dangles a chain and chirps, “I verk in de basement!” — may be a supporting character, but she prepares us for the whorehouse hijinks of “Fanny Hill.” When it’s working, Ed Dixon’s musical adaptation of the 1749 novel has wicked fun following the titular lass’s slide into debauchery, proving yet again that the best satire has a naughty streak.
The object of the satire here is the cruel urban society that could turn a girl as innocent as Fanny (Nancy Anderson) into a lady of the night. Throughout the delightful first act, comedy arises from the girl’s wide-eyed naivete as she misunderstands the double entendres meant to tickle our cynical, citified ears. Fanny is alone, after all, in not knowing what Mrs. Brown (Patti Allison) means when she says she needs a new “daughter” to live in her house.
Dixon’s songs enhance the irony by mimicking the airy sweetness of Anderson’s perf. Their festive melodies feel especially warped during sexual numbers like “Croft’s Serenade,” in which the decrepit Mister Croft (one of many spot-on roles played by David Cromwell) keeps asking Fanny to remove her clothes.
It’s a dark sort of laughter that comes from watching a girl who doesn’t know she’s being corrupted. Director James Brennan keeps us complicit in the first half, never letting the actors become too self-aware. Since the jokes aren’t oversold, it means we have to be a little bit sordid to get them.
Yet it’s Fanny and Charles (Tony Yazbeck), her equally naive suitor, who talk to the audience. The bitter jest is that these two innocents foolishly trust the aud as much as they trust London, but none of us are there to help them. That’s just one more way the show mocks the sweethearts as they get sucked into hell.
Eventually, though, even Fanny must realize she’s a prostitute, and the production’s tone changes with her. Even though the bawdy fun never fully stops, the songs get slower and the speeches more self-pitying as Fanny loses her honor.
Allison is an excellent brassy mama as she condemns her former johns, but the showstopper would mean more if she shared Fanny’s rue by hinting at the ache in lines like, “I’ve had every man in London, I confess/And there’s not a one worth lifting up your dress.”