“She’s not that innocent, she keeps rabbits”
This is actually the UK premiere of Jerry Herman’s 1969 musical Dear World and reading the programme notes about the tortured history of the show – the unhappiness of the writers at how the first production was taken out of their hands, the subsequent numerous rewrites, the competitive and changing musical theatre environment of the time – one could justifiably ask why the decision has been made to put it on now. Seasoned director/choreographer Gillian Lynne has been the one to take it on though, providing a refreshed take on both book and score, and in perhaps the biggest coup, attracting musical theatre legend Betty Buckley to the lead role of the Countess Aurelia.
The story is based on a 1945 play by Giradoux called The Madwoman of Chaillot and is a rather whimsical, you could say bonkers, tale of ecologically-minded community action rising up against exploitative capitalism. A group of avaricious financiers have been led to believe that they can excavate oil from beneath the boulevards of Paris and are willing to do anything – including knocking down the Café Francis – to get at it. And plotting to stop them and save their café, city and the world they hold so dearly, are a ragtag band of odd individuals with the not-quite-as-eccentric-as-all-that Countess Aurelia.
The air of whimsy that prevails is a difficult one to get accustomed to and I am not sure that I ever really got there with this show. It feels dated and insubstantial and more than once, I was left feeling that perhaps this show should have been left on the shelf. Its message is a naively compelling one though and Herman can certainly compose a decent ditty or three and along with Lynne’s choreography, the show is rarely dull. Buckley commands the stage wonderfully and has an elegant presence which finally lets rip at the end of Act 1 when she unleashes that famous belt and demonstrates why she has such a reputation as she does.
But so much of the show is indubitably quirky, almost to distraction. The story doesn’t necessarily strain credibility but the garishly outlandish characters that populate this world are somewhat baffling. The show describes itself as a fable but doesn’t quite feel fantastical enough to really fly to such fairytale-ish imaginative heights in the way that say, Salad Days does. Instead the feel is more of a slightly warped version of our own reality, generally full of batshit crazy people and thus rather ridiculous. It may seem a little harsh but it is symptomatic of a show that doesn’t really know what it wants to be even after 40 years’ worth of tinkering.
Dear World is not without charm though, especially in the efforts of much of its company. Despite the remove of the idea of the fable, moments of real emotion come shining through, most frequently with Buckley’s Countess and ‘And I Was Beautiful’, a heartfelt duet with Stuart Matthew Price’s kindly Julian, is a gorgeous moment. Katy Treharne’s Nina also impresses. And on the comedic side, there is neat work from Annabel Leventon and Rebecca Lock as a pair of batty friends of the Countess but the whimsy reached overload for me with the overtly vaudeville stylings of Paul Nicholas’ Sewerman which felt largely uninspired.
The show does gather steam in the second half and though I was sceptical for large swathes of it, the finale, which brings together excerpts from so many of the songs that have preceded and a jaunty full cast dance routine which would challenge any of the Globe’s jigs, has a persuasively delightful quality that ensured I left the theatre smiling. It’s by no means a classic, but an intriguing curio that is worth hunting down a bargain for for its charm and cast.