Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
One can only guess that the slender, fanciful story at the heart of Dear World was swallowed alive in the Broadway's mammoth Mark Hellinger Theatre. The musical is based on The Madwoman of Chaillot by French playwright Jean Giraudoux. The madwoman of Giraudoux's title, Countess Aurelia, holds forth in a charming Parisian café where she lives in a dream of peace and loveliness. When she learns that an unscrupulous group of tycoons (each called "President") have discovered a lake of oil under the city streets and plan to turn Paris into a field of oil derricks, Aurelia leaps to action, under the tolerant eye of the district's police sergeant. Aurelia engages her similarly off-kilter friends, Madame Constance (The Madwoman of the Flea Market), Madame Gabrielle (the Madwoman of Montmartre), and the Sewer Man as comrades. She also recruits to her team Julian, a handsome and good-hearted junior aide to the Presidents who has fallen in love with the café's waitress, Nina.
The scheme by which Aurelia turns the tables on the sinister Presidents is so simplistic and far-fetched, and the Presidents so gullible in falling for her trick, that it ends up seeming there was never much of a threat after all. All it takes to bring greed and avarice to a halt is a determined madwoman and a conveniently placed endless underground stairwell. To flesh out the tale we are treated to Aurelia, Constance, and Gabrielle having a delightfully daft tea party, a mock court where the wealthy of the worldrepresented by the Sewer Manare put on trial, and scenes nudging the romance between Julian and Nina forward.
Directed by Sarah Rasmussen (newly appointed Artistic Director of Jungle Theater), Dear World has a consistency of tone and streamlined storytelling. Rather than halting the action for a song, the music flows out of the characters' speech, creating a lighter than air effect altogether fitting the dandelion puff of a plot. This production gives the nameless waiter of the original show a name, Alain, and merges his character with a deaf mute (also un-named) from the original. Alain speaks by signing, interpreted by Nina, and he provides the "voice" of the observer, trying to make sense of the madness on both sidesthe Madwoman as well as the Presidents.
Janet Paone plays Countess Aurelia as a goodhearted mother hen, confidently organizing and advising everyone in her orbit. She is more akin to Herman's Dolly Gallagher Levi (from Hello Dolly!) than the ethereal presence one might expect of Aurelia, but her performance works. Thomasina Petrus as Madame Constance, and Christina Baldwin as Madame Gabrielle are both wonderful, mining the humor within the madness of their respective characters. Both actors also sing splendidly, Petrus more throaty and earthy, Baldwin with more operatic flourish.
Kris Nelson is a terrific self-effacing Sewer Man, who shines in two places: the tango "Garbage," describing the tarnished pleasures of working in the sewers; and as defendant of the wealthy, pleading their case before judges Constance and Gabrielle. JuCoby Johnson (Julian) and Sheena Janson (Nina) are swell as the innocents who find love amid the wickedness of the world. With Johnson's boyish handsomeness and Janson's subdued loveliness, they convey enough purity and earnestness to make their "love at first sight" seem plausible. Fred Wagner as the Sergeant and Shawn Vriezen as Alain complete the altogether winning ensemble. Baldwin, Petrus and Wagner do double duty playing the Presidents, and Nelson is the Prospector who discovers the oil. They are evil in the manner of arch cartoon characters, totally without redemption but never really threatening.
As always in Ten Thousand Things productions, the set is spare, the lighting nonexistent, but the costumes are alive with color and invention, and Peter Vitale's music and sound effects add immeasurably to the show's vitality.
If the storyline in Dear World feels feeble, the theme of the disenfranchised triumphing against the rich and powerful is not. Giraudoux wrote his play in 1943, in the midst of World War II and Nazi-occupied Paris. In that context it would have had deep resonance for his countrymen, a rallying call to retain hope even when hope may seem to be madness. In fact, the play was not performed until late 1945, after the war's end. Dear World arrived in the midst of the Vietnam War and a nation torn by racial and social strife. Given the state of today's worlda growing divide between the wealthy and everyone else embodied by the phrase "the top one percent," loss of confidence in the political process making a difference, and continued despoliation of the environment by economic forcesit is easy to see how Ten Thousand Things selected Dear World as a story that would appeal to their audiences at shelters, prisons, adult basic education programs, low-income housing, and urban community centers.
Beyond its message of an individual's power to make things right in the world, the great pleasures of Dear World are in Jerry Herman's score. There are several truly beautiful songs, and the score overall serves the show quite well, ranging in tone from lilting to wistful to tango to the patter suite of songs forming the mad tea party, and full-out, belt it to the balcony show tunes including the title number. It is unfortunate that, unlike "I Won't Send Roses" and "Time Heals Everything" from Mack and Mable, Herman's similarly unsuccessful follow up to Dear World, lovely songs such as "Kiss Him Now," and "And I Was Beautiful," the soul-wrenching "I Don't Want to Know," and the stirring anthem "One Person" have not become widely known.
When all is said and done, Dear World is not a very good musical, done in mainly by its book. If it was Herman, Lawrence, and Lee's challenge to the status quo of its day, supporting those seeking to change the world, it stayed far too much within the esthetics of conventional musical theater. Consider that the same Broadway season produced Hair.
Nonetheless, Ten Thousand Things has allowed us to hear a wonderful score that is too little known, and has gathered highly talented actors to engage audiences with performances that find both the humor and humanity in these characters. And when we turn from the news of the day, it is refreshing to hear Countess Aurelia sing with full conviction that "one person can change the world."
Dear World plays through January 24, and February 4-7, 2016 at The Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN and January 28-31, 2016 at Bedlam Theatre, 213 4th Street East, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets: $30.00, Pay what you can, $5.00 and up, for those under 30. Community Performances are scheduled at various times and locations, tickets are free but reservations are required. For tickets call 612-203-9502 or go to www.tenthousandthings.org.
Book: Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee, based on The Madwoman of Chaillot by Jean Giraudoux; Music and Lyrics: Jerry Herman; Director: Sarah Rasmussen; Producer: Michelle Hensley; Music Director: Peter Vitale; Costumes: Moria Sine Clinton; Sets: Stephen Mohring; Choreographer: Kimberly Richardson; Production Manager: Nancy Waldoch; Lead ASL Interpreter: Sarah Brown; Assistant Director: Alison Thvedt; Costume Assistant: Jeni O'Malley; Production Intern: Alex Goebel
Cast: Christina Baldwin (President #3, Madame Gabrielle), Sheena Janson (Nina), JuCoby Johnson (Julian), Kris Nelson (The Prospector, The Sewer Man), Janet Paone (Countess Aurelia), Thomasina Petrus (President #2, Madame Constance), Shawn Vriezen (Alain - a waiter), Fred Wagner (President #1, The Sergeant