Sign up for our free newsletter
The press for the American Century Theater’s latest production, Dear World, describes it as “The Musical That Can Save the World.”
Well, at least it’s a musical about saving the world. In Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s 1969 musical adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s 1945 play The Madwoman of Chaillot, said madwoman gathers her daffy friends to save Paris from an unnamed “corporation” that wants to turn the town into an industrial wasteland. The little-guy optimism of Giraudoux’s story was appropriate for the disillusioned midcentury Western world, and it ought to still be uplifting today. (Director John Moran and company are to be commended for not leaning overmuch on the script’s references to greedy oil barons and Franco-American relations.) But the problems of this production have nothing to do with its timeliness. They’re a matter of tone.
For starters, there’s the music of Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly!), a hit-or-miss songwriter whose shotgun weddings of word and note have resulted in more awkward pairings than all the chapels in Vegas. (I can’t be the only one who flinches every time the emphasis falls on “your” in “the band’s playin’ one of your old favorite songs from way back when.”) One of the best-singing and -dancing casts to be found in a small local company can’t save Herman’s bad-assonance. In one low point in Act 1, we’re forced to listen to two songs about trash: “Pretty Garbage” and “Ugly Garbage.” (“Ugly Garbage” is prettier.) Regard the lyrical sweep of the former: “A rose and a fan, a piece of pimento floating in turquoise ink/There was a time when garbage was a pleasure/When you found the joy of gracious living underneath your sink.”
Of course, in case you didn’t get enough at first, nearly every song flares up again after a break for applause. Even with a better score, there’s only so long and so vigorously a small crowd can clap, and the teat-tugging con of the built-in encores is too easily emphasized in such intimate quarters as Gunston Theater II. And too much of the energy of Dear World is in Daniel Sticco’s baton: The pocket orchestra of keyboards, percussion, and harp is economical and charming, but the production often tries to make rapidity stand in for intensity, and the increased tempo of those codas just taxes the singers.
They’re good singers, one and all, vigorous dancersPauline S. Grossman’s choreography fills the small space admirablyand generally fine actors. But when they’re not singing, they’re hampered by an understandable lack of empathy with the world of Lawrence and Lee’s creation.
Perhaps they’re too smart for the charmless songs, the sketchy plot (which is too slight for a two-and-a-half-hour run time), and the insufferable idiosyncrasies of the central characterCountess Aurelia, aka the Madwoman of Chaillot. Angela Lansbury originally played this part, after a triumph in Herman’s Mame, but even she couldn’t redeem a character who sweeps into a drizzle-soaked cafe and insists that it will clear up soon because “This morning, I distinctly heard a speck of blue!” Aurelia’s pronouncements are met with insincerely goofy shrugs or “Yeah, hright” grimaces by the saner folks.
Actually, there are three-count-’em-three madwomen in this story, but here more equals better; when Constance, the “grande dame of the flea market,” and Gabrielle, the “artistic conscience of Montmartre,” join Aurelia for the second-act counterpoint “Tea Party Trio,” the fugue of individual psychoses is almost delightful. Jacqueline Manger as Constance and, especially, Liz Weber as Gabrielle make the most of their less-demanding roles. (Weber has excellent command of Dickie, the production’s imaginary dog.) Ilona Dulaski, as Aurelia, shifts ably from psycho to psychically vulnerable; she’s generally as good as the play allows her to be, although her upper-register vocals sometimes sound as strained as her ill-written character.
Throughout the cast, there are glimmers of brilliance. Joe Cronin, Kim-Scott Miller, and John C.
Bailey’s trio of corporate evildoers make this a show where you root for the villains, who are, at least, not sighing, “I have been up most of the night conferring with my cats about the end of the world.” (They get the show’s best song, the second-act opener “The Spring of Next Year,” featuring Herman on a good-lyric day: “There will be a sweet taste in the air/Of industrial waste in the air.”) Steven Cupo’s khaki-clad Sewerman, of the ooky trash paeans, is likewise vigorous in his musical numbers, disposable as they are.
And Lisa Carrier’s Nina is a lovely ingénue, even if her lament “I’ve Never Said I Love You” is seemingly shoehorned into the script. The romantic subplot in Dear World is even more irrelevant and implausible than in most post-Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, so it doesn’t matter much that Carrier and Michael Hadary’s morose Julian lack chemistry. Strangely, the script, and this production, offers its strongest pairing in Julian and Aurelia: In their scenes together, Hadary’s inert, wide-eyed gaze takes on a semblance of tenderness, and Dulaski flickers with aged credibility.
In fact, with a few plot tweaks, and a better score, Dear World could have been a tolerable stage adaptation of Harold and Maude. In a good way: There’s nothing wrong with idealistic gooniness, droll humor, and eccentric old dames. But whimsy without a poetic spark is just…flimsy. CP