Dear World – The UK premiere of Jerry Herman’s musical [Charing Cross Theatre]

Dear World
A musical fable with music & lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, in a new version by David Thompson, based on Jean Giraudoux’s play La folle de Chaillot as adapted by Maurice Valency [UK premiere]

Countess Aurelia – Betty Buckley
Sewerman – Paul Nicholas
President 1 – Peter Land
President 2 – Jack Rebaldi
President 3 – Robert Meadmore
Prospector – Anthony Barclay
Julian – Stuart Matthew Price
Nina – Katy Treharne
Mute – Ayman Safiah
Waiter – Brett Brown
Sergeant – Michael Chance
Gabrielle – Rebecca Lock
Constance – Annabel Leventon
Sous Chef – Joanna Loxton
Customer – Craig Nicholls

Ian Townsend (Musical Director & keyboard 1), Marcus Tilt (Assistant Musical Director, accordion & keyboard 2), Shelley Britton (violin), Melanie Henry (tenor saxophone, clarinet, flute & piccolo), Andy Gray (trumpet & flugelhorn), Joy Hawley (cello), Nick Laughlin (double bass) and Ollie Boorman (percussion)

Gillian Lynne – Director & Choreographer
Matt Kinley – Set Designer
Ann Hould-Ward – Costume Designer
Mike Robertson – Lighting Designer
Mike Walker – Sound Designer
Sarah Travis – Orchestrator

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 16 February, 2013
Venue: Charing Cross Theatre, London

At last here is the UK premiere of Dear World, a musical from 1969 based on the play The Mad Woman of Chaillot by French playwright Jean Giraudoux. The musical version is by Jerry Herman whose previous successes had been Milk and Honey, Hello, Dolly!, and Mame and whose subsequent shows included Mack and Mabel, The Grand Tour and La Cage aux Folles. The forty-three years between the New York and London premieres are because Dear World was a catastrophic flop on Broadway. For whatever reason – perhaps the wrong time for a piece of wistful whimsy when shows such as Hair were attracting attention, or the fact that the producers tried to turn it into a big Broadway commercial property – Herman’s idea of something different just did not appeal to critics or public.

Both Broadway and the London stage are littered with the corpses of musicals that failed to succeed. The first productions of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd suffered in enormous theatres, the Uris in New York and Drury Lane in London; scaled-down versions have become hits ever since, culminating in the Chichester Festival Theatre production with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. There was also a film, with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, which doesn’t indicate a hit; witness the films of Mame and Hello, Dolly!. Making money is at the root of theatrical enterprises and musicals are so costly to produce.

Having enjoyed enormous success, Jerry Herman wanted to try something different but not necessarily a big Broadway hit. Dear World reached a mere 132 performances between February and May 1969, following seven weeks of previews! Interesting note: although the original play is a favourite in both France and the States, Bryan Forbes’s film version with Katharine Hepburn, Edith Evans, Margaret Leighton, Paul Henreid, Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, Oscar Homolka and Danny Kaye was also a big, lemon-flavoured flop.

So what went wrong with Dear World the musical? Herman’s producers were behind him, as were writers Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee who had worked with Herman on Mame. The star of that, Angela Lansbury, was also glad to be involved with something more challenging. Herman also challenged himself by writing out of his usual comfort zone including a number in triple counterpoint. He chose Giraudoux’s play because he’d played the deaf mute character in a student production at the University of Miami in the 1950s. Maybe he let sentiment and nostalgia override commercial nous.

The story deals with a group of people fighting the onslaught of capitalism. In Paris just after World War Two a group of businessmen discover that there is oil beneath the streets of Paris, so they plot to blow up a bistro in order to get to the greasy pickings. They come up against Countess Aurelia (the Mad Woman of Chaillot) who lives in the basement of the café. Julian, a young executive, doesn’t want the place destroyed because he is in love with Nina, the waitress. With the aid of Aurelia and her equally ‘mad’ friends Constance and Gabrielle, his wish is granted as the Countess tricks the businessmen into a search for oil below her flat, sending them beneath the Paris sewers.

A charming-enough whimsical tale for which Herman wrote some pleasant tunes, ballads and point numbers, but they do not make a completely satisfactory show. After it closed prematurely the three creators rewrote it in an effort to regain their original idea of a chamber piece. A revised version appeared in the 2000 at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut, with Sally Ann Howes. The book was also revised, by David Thompson, three songs added, and seen in a concert version in San Francisco. Another version, again by Thompson, was produced in Utah in 2002, Toronto in 2012 and this version is at the Charing Cross Theatre.

The re-jigging hasn’t helped, especially with the displacement of the songs. The title number originally appeared at the end of Act One, making it a grand gesture before the interval, which now goes for nothing because it is followed by ‘One person’, originally the finale to Act Two and telling us what a person can do if they are determined or mad enough to persevere. ‘The spring of next year’ is transposed from the beginning of Act One to the opening of Act Two, ‘Kiss her now’ from the opening of Act Two to just before the finale, and two additional songs, ‘Just a little bit more’ and ‘Have a little pity on the rich’ make little impression. The most memorable number is ‘I don’t want to know’, a song of defiance for the Countess.

Winsomeness may have been the show’s undoing, for we are in a stereotypical Paris, with accordions and squeezeboxes and the presence of a mute character (Ayman Safiah) who dances and mimes and pokes fun at the businessmen’s follies. We could almost be in René’s café in ‘Allo ‘Allo! for when the police sergeant enters I swore he was going to say “Good moaning”. The young lovers (Nina and Julian) are no more than ciphers despite Katy Treharne and Stuart Matthew Price’s best efforts. As the businessmen (or Presidents) Peter Land, Jack Rebaldi and Robert Meadmore have their moments, while Paul Nicholas as the Sewerman seems very low-powered in a nothing sort of role.

It is left to the mad women, Gabrielle (Rebecca Lock), who parades around with her invisible dog, Constance (Annabel Leventon), who hears voices everywhere, and the Countess Aurelia (Betty Buckley) who is the biggest fixer this side of Dolly Levi, to provide most of the fun. Buckley is an old hand at Broadway shows but this one seems to have taxed her not inconsequential talents in trying to lift the show off the ground. Gillian Lynne injects some punch into proceedings with her direction and choreography but the basic material singularly fails to rise to the occasion.

  • Dear World is at the Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers Street, London WC2 until Saturday 30 March 2013
  • Monday to Saturday 7.30 p.m., matinees Wednesday & Saturday 2.30
  • Charing Cross Theatre

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