nytheatre.com review by Eric Pliner
February 9, 2006
It’s a matter of seconds into Ed Dixon’s new musical Fanny Hill (based on the book by John Cleland) before the title character warns the audience that she “wrote the most famous dirty book of all time.” Indeed, Cleland’s novel so shocked readers of the 1700s (and beyond) that it was banned in the United States until a 1966 Supreme Court decision rendered it openly readable. The stage version of Fanny quickly qualifies her claim—(“it’s not really dirty; it’s just my story!”)—but this admittedly likable production still never lives up to the audacity of its opening line, abandoning the potential for cheeky fun in favor of only mildly successful sentiment.
Fleeing the English countryside for London after her parents’ untimely deaths, Fanny Hill (the wholly appealing Nancy Anderson) finds herself broke and alone in the seedy city, where she sets out in search of a long-lost friend, Phoebe Davis (Christianne Tisdale). Overhearing her plight, madam-in-disguise Mrs. Brown (Patti Allison) offers the waif a room at her boarding house, pleasant accommodations full of other single, young women—including Phoebe, maid Martha (Emily Skinner), and German basement-dweller Esther Schwester (Gina Ferrall). The residents—all unrelated but referred to as “cousins”—welcome Fanny with open arms; but then, welcoming strangers with open arms is their business, and the raison d’etre for Mrs. Brown’s excitement at bringing yet another directionless but beautiful girl into her home. Mortified at the advances of Mrs. Brown’s unappealing clientele (not to mention those of some of her co-workers), Fanny escapes with the handsome if not-entirely-bright sailor Charles Waneigh (Tony Yazbeck). His kidnapping sends the seemingly luckless Fanny back to Mrs. Brown, where she is sold to wealthy Lord Hereford (David Cromwell), only to be returned yet again when he catches her red, er, handed with the amply-endowed and aptly-named Will Plenty (Adam Monley). Yet another forced marriage to the ancient but even more affluent Mister Croft (Cromwell again), timed nicely with his death and the unexpected return of her kidnapped first-love, leaves this self-proclaimed “woman of pleasure” with the happiest of endings.
Unfortunately, the audience isn’t quite as lucky. A host of appealing elements are in place—excellent performers (namely, Anderson, Allison, Skinner, Yazbeck, and Cromwell), delicious costumes and a fantastic and functional set by Michael Bottari & Ronald Case, and saucily compelling source material—making it tough to dismiss Fanny Hill entirely. More problematic, however, is Ed Dixon’s utterly forgettable score and virtually joyless book. Within minutes of leaving the theatre, I could not recall a single song from the production, save an irritating “clip clop” refrain that indicates travel. Some of the slightly more memorable scenes seem too close to other, much better-crafted musicals—the Cousins’ welcoming “House of Joy” evokes Annie’s “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here”; Patti Allison’s Mrs. Brown sure does look and sound like a Les Miserables road company Mme. Thernardier; and I’ll be darned if two scenes in a London market don’t bear more than a passing resemblance to Oliver’s rousing “Who Will Buy?,” down to vendors offering strawberries and flowers. Most importantly, for a tale that begins with that pronouncement of being the “most famous dirty book of all time,” there is surprisingly little glee in Fanny’s self-exploration and rise to fame as London’s most renowned woman of pleasure.
There are witty moments, it’s true; the first sex scene between prudish virgins Fanny and Charles is a success as much because of its clever use of formal language to highlight awkwardness and downplay sexuality as for the immensely likable Anderson and Yazbeck. An obviously-intended showstopper, Mrs. Brown’s “Every Man in London,” is enjoyable enough for allowing character actress Allison to shine alone, but an unwarranted—and unrequested—encore detracts from its appeal. After that, the next extended joy surfaces towards the end of the musical’s second act, as Fanny and her colleagues entertain a variety of clients with odd fetishes via song and dance. By that point, though, the hardworking cast and the remarkable design can barely rescue this show from itself. For a work whose source material is subtitled “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure,” Fanny Hill contains surprisingly little pleasure—for its characters or for its audience.