Should you go see Circle Theatre’s new production, Dear World? Well, here’s the deal.
If your money’s tight or you seldom get a chance to attend live musical theater unless it’s really something extra special, perhaps this one is not for you. But if you enjoy experiencing shows that enjoy cult status, those seldom-seen treasures of musical theater legend that suffered checkered histories, here’s your chance to see firsthand just what many refer to as a classic “Broadway train wreck.” Dear World, directed by Bob Knuth, is actually a lovely couple of hours with some very pleasant performances, delightful staging and choreography, charming costumes and a few enchanting songs. But it’s not for everyone.
This is a perfect example of a show that’s much beloved by actors and directors but not necessarily audiences. It is based on a 1940s absurdist play, The Madwoman of Chaillot, by French dramatist and diplomat Jean Girandoux, written while the Nazis still occupied Paris. This poignant, avante-garde fable of liberation now comes off as a rather naive relic that doesn’t translate well for 21st-century audiences. Though its themes of terrorism, pollution,and lost love might seem to be universal, all of its sunny idealism grows rather tedious.
In 1969, composer Jerry Herman and book writers Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee adapted the work for Broadway. Conceived initially as an intimate chamber musical, by the time the show was mounted, it was disastrously bloated and way over-produced. Though Angela Lansbury won a Tony in the leading role, the show was doomed during its try-out phase. A slew of directors and choreographers were hired and fired. Songs were cut, others were pumped up and elongated. Yet nothing seemed to save the show. Perhaps audiences went expecting something akin to “Mame” or “Hello Dolly,” Herman’s most popular hits of the ’60s. The ill-fated production, based on a quirky little fable, closed within a couple months.
Incidentally, the same year this show bombed on Broadway (1969), Katharine Hepburn starred in a straight film version of “The Madwoman of Chaillot.” It, too, died at the box office. (I love film and surround myself with others who do, too, yet I have never encountered anyone who has seen that movie.)
Jerry Herman has long referred to this neglected, seldom-produced musical as “fragile” and “surreal.” Those aren’t exactly adjectives that pack theaters or get audiences hot and bothered. Yet this show is not without its charms.
Anita Hoffman really sinks her teeth into the leading role of dear, dotty Countess Aurelia, a wacky aristocrat who attempts to thwart the plans of a trio of greedy capitalists who want to turn much of her picturesque Paris neighborhood into an oil field. The countess is a goofy old gal who is much beloved by all. She makes the rounds of the city feeding gizzards to stray cats. She calls men by different names every hour. Choosing to live in the style of the turn-of-the-last-century, she wears huge picture hats, ropes of beads, and long feather boas. Several of Hoffman’s numbers””Each Tomorrow Morning” and “I Don’t Want To Know””are especially haunting and fine.
The large cast is a swirl of Parisian peddlers, cafe owners, jugglers, gendarmes, mute mimes, flower girls, and such. You get the idea. The colorful people of Paris.
Nearly all the characters are either delusional or cartoonish. When a trio of villains shows up”John Milewski, Kevin Bishop, and Michael R. Sherman”they possess a round black “time bomb” that looks like they might have borrowed it from Elmer Fudd or the Road Runner. These villains clearly enjoy being evil.
Laura McClain is Nina, a cute cafe waitress, and Eric Lindahl is the sweet young idealist who abandons working for the capitalist crooks to assist the crazy countess. He falls for Nina in the process.
The philospophical sewer man (Russ Rainear), a spokesman for the working poor of Paris, sings a ballad, “Pretty Garbage,” which features a “fashion parade” a la Flor Ziegfeld or Busby Berkeley with chorus members attired in assorted refuse. It’s a quick bit of fun.
In the throes of the political intrigue, Countess Aurelia enlists the aid of her two eccentric sidekicks, a pair of loveable lunatics who are also dedicated to saving the world from capitalism. Constance, delightfully played by soprano Sara Minton, is so bonkers she hears voices coming from her hot water bottle. Mary Redson, as Gabrielle, is an overgrown little girl who has an imaginary dog. The “tea party” scene in Act 2 featuring these three ditsy dowagers is the high point of the evening.
Rounding out the cast are: Sarah R. Sapperstein, Jennifer Bludgen, Michael R. Sherman, Shawn Quinlan, Cory Fowkes, Michael Herschberg, Patricia Austin, Meredith L. Freyre, Brian Simmons, and Matthew Wilson.
Elizabeth Shaffer’s costumes are quite picturesque. Hoffman’s outfits have the perfect look of faded grandeur.
Knuth’s set opens up to accommodate other locations besides the sidewalk cafe. His Parisian pallete of impressionist hues works swell.
Musical direction is by Carolyn Brady-Riley. The choreographer is Kevin Bellie. Peter J. Storms did the sound design.
The Parisian Pollyanna theme that goodness and optimism will overcome pure evil is constantly reinforced by Herman’s relentlessly upbeat tunes.
Dear World is not a dud. It’s a solid production that’s quirky and spunky. But all the gooey, bubbly optimism wears thin toward the end. You certainly won’t need to bring your rose-colored glasses.