John Cleland’s scandalous 18th century novel “Fanny Hill” (aka “Memoirs of A Woman of Pleasure”) gets musical theater treatment with the York Theatre Company (book, music and lyrics by Ed Dixon) and, for the most part, it’s an enjoyable transition. Be aware, however, that this is not a show for the pre-teen set, with double and triple entendres, salacious puns and loaded lines that alternately illicit large groans and guffaws from the audience.
After the death of her parents in a 1750 English farming community, 15-year-old, wide-eyed and innocent Fanny Hill (Nancy Anderson) heads for London to seek her fortune and find her dear friend Phoebe (Christianne Tisdale). However, Phoebe, she is shocked to learn, has been working as a “lady of the evening” in a London bawdy house. Having nowhere else to go, Fanny soon finds herself recruited into the “entertainment” business by the somewhat wicked Mrs. Brown (Patti Allison), the owner of the establishment. Most of the women depicted are, despite their professions, at least partially honorable, while most of the men, regardless of theirs, are lustful.
Determined to find a better life and refusing to surrender her virtue to a stranger, Fanny, in a case of love at first glance, happens to catch the eye of young Charles Waneigh (Tony Yazbeck), a sailor in Her Majesty’s Navy. However, shortly after the two run off together, Charles mysteriously disappears and Fanny is forced to return to Mrs. Brown, eventually being sold off as a kept woman for a much older man (the hilarious David Cromwell)—just one of her several misadventures before the final curtain.
Dixon has crafted an enjoyable show about a young woman’s coming of age and the child that exists inside all of us. The music, which contains echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan and “My Fair Lady,” fits well into the era depicted and is nicely delivered by a highly polished group of singers (including Emily Skinner, who plays one of the girls at Mrs. Brown’s, Ms. Tisdale and Ms. Allison). The show also gives us some very enjoyable ensemble numbers, with a cast that looks like it’s having a grand old time. As the title character, Ms. Anderson is fresh-faced enough to pass for a girl in the bloom of innocence and, just as important, never loses her vulnerability no matter what hardships she eventually faces. Mr. Yazbeck is blandly appealing as the straight arrow, earnest lover.
The musical takes a bit too long to find its stride—as if Dixon, director James Brennan and musical director Stan Tucker haven’t yet gotten all their ducks in order. The beginning of the story feels rushed as the production does its best to get Fanny off the farm and into London as soon as possible so the story can really begin. It’s also a few scenes until the show develops the proper tongue-in-cheek style it needs rather than the “wink-wink nudge-nudge, look what we’re doing” way employed in the beginning.
Once the show does come together, about halfway through act one—there’s a lot of fun to be had. With a little tightening and pruning, this is one Fanny that should pop up again somewhere once its run at the York is finished.
Also in the cast are Adam Monley, Michael J. Farina and Gina Ferrall.
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