A Fanny Thing

Times change. Half a century ago, Lindsay and Crouse could guarantee themselves a big laugh at a first-act curtain by having their naive hero open a book and read the line “My maiden name was Fanny Hill.” In those days, John Cleland’s 18th-century porn classic couldn’t be sold publicly in the U.S.; nowadays it practically ranks as literature, and fairly tame literature at that. Inevitably, the musical that Ed Dixon has made of Fanny’s copulative encounters falls into the good-natured, mild-mannered genre, now nearly extinct, that I once christened the Obmusc, or Off-Broadway Musicalized Classic, all tinkly mock-baroque trills, tidily rhymed patter, and stylized posturing.

The genre still has its charms, and Dixon’s Fanny Hill, though a pale, autumnal example, tootles on its fornicative way pleasantly enough, especially when sweet Nancy Anderson, as Fanny, warbles roulades above the staff while being chased around beds by droll David Cromwell, or being taught her trade by saucy Patti Allison, in a stage-stealing turn as her madam. Thanks to James Brennan’s speedy staging, the actors never, as it were, lie down on the job. If Cleland’s novel had actually contained any dramatizable substance, Dixon might have found some reason for us to be there, beyond the momentary pleasure after which all theatergoing animals are sad.

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