"Pardon the proximity of my person to your own." So steeped in politeness (and alliteration), these are hardly the words one expects to hear from the mouth of a prostitute. But in the world of fiction—and musical theater—possibilities expand. In the tradition of such innocent-girl-meets-big-city, city-proves-bad-influence tales as Thomas Dreiser's famous novel Sister Carrie, John Cleland's 18th-century novel Fanny Hill is tantalizing fodder for musical adaptation. If Ed Dixon's music and script are often meandering and overly simplistic, the ever-dependable York Theater Company has produced an endearing, jaunty romp of a show. And the overqualified cast, without fail, rises above the mostly mediocre material to turn in delightful performances.
Leading the pack is Nancy Anderson, who embodies the title character with sincerity and grace. Displaying vulnerability and pluck (sometimes simultaneously), Anderson brings to mind a young Bernadette Peters. With striking and precise comic timing, her strong performance anchors the show as the young heroine sets off to seek her fortune and encounters many curves in the road.
And Fanny certainly has ample ups and downs to navigate on her picaresque adventure. Orphaned in the small village of Lancashire, she arrives in London with little money but plenty of determination. The devious Mrs. Brown (Patti Allison), spying easy prey, scoops her off the street and whisks her into her house of prostitutes. Initially charmed by the house's splendor and luxuries, Fanny recoils when she discovers how the girls come by their money. After she falls in love with Charles (Tony Yazbeck), a sailor who spots her through her window, Fanny runs away to live with him. But when the sailors kidnap Charles and take him back to sea, Fanny finds herself back at Mrs. Brown's house, looking for refuge.
Resigned to her lot, Fanny throws herself into her new career, perfecting the prostitute's trade and becoming a kept woman for a wealthy country lord. The action finally resolves in a happily-ever-after(-ish) manner, but not until the requisite amount of mayhem and clever coincidences have occurred.
Billed as a takeoff on "the world's most infamous naughty book," Fanny Hill rarely feels truly naughty; sex scenes are highly stylized, and much of the humor comes from Fanny's wide-eyed, naïve reactions to provocative situations. With tongue firmly in cheek, the show often channels famous period pieces such as Candide and The Pirates of Penzance (the sailors, for one, immediately recall those infamous pirates). While comparably playful and frothy, Fanny Hill lacks the depth of those superior productions.
And Dixon's music cannot even begin to compete with the songs of Leonard Bernstein or Gilbert and Sullivan. Dixon's sprightly melodies are often as simple and repetitious as tunes from a music box. Largely unmemorable, the songs too often rely on short, rhymed phrases ("There's not enough pain / and I never was vain") that fail to develop into more substantive passages.
There are notable exceptions, however, which point to Dixon's promise as a songwriter. "Honor Lost," Fanny's lament after she first exchanges sex for money, is an evocative and moving ballad wrenchingly performed by Anderson, and "Every Man in London" is a show-stopping comedy song for the raunchy Mrs. Brown. Allison makes every moment count, and she quite deservedly brings down the house.
But with an ensemble that boasts such esteemed talents as Emily Skinner and David Cromwell, it seems a waste to let them languish in repeated, interminable choruses of "Clippy-clop-clip/Clippy-clippy-clop-clip" (the sound of horses as Fanny travels). If they feel their training is wasted, however, you'd never guess it from their dedicated performances. Skinner delights as Martha, Mrs. Brown's maid, while Cromwell shows comic flourish in several craggy, curmudgeonly roles. Michael J. Farina, Adam Monley, Gina Ferrall, and Christianne Tisdale round out the talented ensemble.
In the stock dreamy-male leading role (see Frederick in Pirates), Yazbeck gives a winning performance as Charles. Armed with a full-bodied, silky voice (as well as the uncanny ability to achieve beautiful resonance while splayed out on his back), Yazbeck should attract the attention of many casting directors. Keep watch on this up-and-coming young actor.
Fanny Hill, with its feisty young ingénue and torrid subject matter, would seem to be a prime candidate for musicalization. Widely considered the first "erotic" novel, Cleland's book, in print since 1749, has been the subject of multiple debates over censorship. Unfortunately, Dixon's adaptation ultimately lacks the substance to make Fanny's story a true theatrical event.
Still, James Brennan's direction is crisp and nuanced, Michael Bottari and Ronald Case's set and costumes are creative and lavish, and the cast is first rate, making this something of a guilty pleasure—a buoyant exercise in frivolity. "If you hold your head high and keep walking," Fanny says, "you might just end up where you're going." And at the York Theater, chins are held deliriously high.