Jerry Herman’s “Dear World” opened and closed on Broadway in 1969, suffering from a bloated production that ran contrary to the composer’s vision of a small, intimate show.
Now, a mere 33 years later, Sundance is staging the premiere of a revised “Dear World” that is truer to Herman’s original intent. The great outdoors setting at Sundance may not be what you’d call “intimate,” but the performances are quirky and lovable, and so is the show.
I fear the beauty of “Dear World” may be lost on some people. It has fewer songs and more talking than some musicals, and its style is daft and sometimes surreal. The story is slight and parable-like. I didn’t know what Herman meant when he described the show in an interview as “fragile.” Now I know. It’s like the child you feel is most precious because it’s a little different from the others, and you’re afraid the rest of the world won’t appreciate it.
The show, directed by Philip Himberg, is set in Paris just after World War II, when the citizens are still sweeping up the last vestiges of the Nazi occupation — physically, anyway. In every other way, the war has changed Paris forever.
That is not true for Countess Aurelia (Maureen McGovern), though, the madwoman of Chaillot for whom men’s names change every hour and to whom “the sun is always shining, right behind the clouds.” She takes Pollyanna’s optimism and advances it to the next level: full-blown insanity. She lives life the way it used to be, not the way it is. When informed of how hearts have hardened since the recent travails, she sings a song called “I Don’t Want to Know.”
Evil is represented by three suit-wearing industrialists, all called “president” (Eric Bjarnson, Aaron DeJesus, Rock White), who are told by a prospector (Jim Pitts) that beneath Aurelia’s cafe sits an enormous lake of oil. They conspire to level most of Paris, drill the oil, and make themselves richer than they already are.
Aurelia, learning of the plot from the presidents’ conscience-wracked intern Julian (Jason Celaya), must thwart it. She enlists the aid of her two fellow madwomen (Joan Barber and Dee Macaluso), her cafe waitress Nina (Britani Bateman), a waiter (Bijan A. Zaimi), a police sergeant (Ary Kian), a mute (Michael J. Eger) and a sewerman (Max Robinson).
And that’s more or less it. The story takes place entirely in one day; it is meant as a fable, to make larger points by means of small, simple ones. The word “war” is never used. The story applies to all eras in which people have recently suffered, regardless of what caused it. You will find modern applications.
The presidents and the prospector are all fantastically buffoonish, dancing some very funny choreography and acting in a style more cartoon than evil. (Their bomb is a Looney Tunes-style black ball with a fuse, labeled “Le Bomb.”) Also turning in a fine comic performance is Max Robinson as the baggy-pantsed clown sewerman.
Joan Barber and Dee Macaluso are Constance and Gabrielle, Aurelia’s mad friends. Gabrielle has an imaginary dog whom she speaks to, sometimes even when she has left the imaginary dog at home. Constance hears voices from her home appliances. Both speak with a delivery that is utterly hysterical. If their characters make no sense, it is balanced by how drop-dead funny they are.
And then there is Maureen McGovern, filling the role originated by Angela Lansbury and, judging by the cast recording of the original production and with all due respect to Ms. Lansbury, doing a better job of it. McGovern’s voice is fantastic; that was never in question. But the self-described “singer who acts” handles the acting with incredible grace, humor and fire. Aurelia does not seem like a delusional old fool who won’t face reality; instead, she is an idealist who truly believes — and convinces the audience — that one person can change the world.
“Dear World” has ample great humor, but it is the gentle, poignant moments that will stick with you. Such a lovely show; I hope the world appreciates it.
Should you go? Definitely. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you might see Redford in the audience.
I had the good fortune to interview Jerry Herman by phone a couple weeks before seeing this, and then to meet him in person the night of the show. He is a positive-thinking, upbeat man, which I think is reflected in his sunny, optimistic shows. He's also very, very short, much like Mr. Redford, whom I did see in the audience, sitting atop a stack of phone books so he could see the stage.