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The Washington Times

An imperfect, delightful 'World'

Composer Jerry Herman has enjoyed a local renaissance of late, starting with Signature Theatre's smashing revival of his undervalued musical "Mack and Mabel" this summer. . American Century Theater picks up the torch with another one of Mr. Herman's "duds," "Dear World," which premiered in 1969 starring Angela Lansbury and ran a meager 200 performances.

Mr. Herman, hot off the success of "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame," was confident "Dear World," a delicately fantastic adaptation of Jean Giraudoux's satiric farce "The Madwoman of Chaillot," would be a similar smash.

Conceived as an intimate chamber musical, the producers felt "Dear World" had to have the bombastic Broadway brass of "Mame" and "Hello, Dolly!" Costumes grew elaborate, the sets exploded in glitz, and the choreography was jazzed up to the teeth. The result was an expensive, gluttonous train wreck that was gleefully stomped by the New York critics in particular Clive Barnes, who cracked, "A concertina lurks around every corner."

Maybe the show was overproduced, maybe audiences in 1969 were more attuned to the darker, more psychologically complex musicals of Stephen Sondheim than the bubbly optimism of Jerry Herman. Whatever the cause, "Dear World" slipped into obscurity.

Last year, the Sundance Theatre successfully revived "Dear World" starring Maureen McGovern as the Countess Aurelia, the town's beloved eccentric who saves Paris from ruthless industrialists.

Now, American Century is taking a crack at it, using the original book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, which emphasizes the simple magic of Mr. Giraudoux's tale (written during the Nazi occupation of France as a speculation on life after liberation).

Under the astute direction of John Moran, "Dear World" has been restored to its roots. There is a small cast and orchestra, and charmingly uncomplicated orchestrations. Paris is suggested through a Monet-like palette, seen in the lighting and the painted floor, the effortless chic of Pam McFarlane's costumes and the pretty swirl of Parisians, cafe owners, jugglers, gendarmes, a ballerina, and a streetwalker.

Mr. Herman's score is glorious, lilting and romantic and full of songs that urge listeners to dream often and long. The tunes are vintage Jerry Herman; doggedly upbeat, classic Broadway melodies with ingratiating hooks and unashamed razzle dazzle.

It was a wise move to cast veteran performer Ilona Dulaski as the Countess Aurelia, who is not so much crazy as someone who chooses her own reality in this case, deciding to live at the turn of the century. Miss Dulaski was one of the best things about Signature's production of "Follies" this season. In "Dear World," her often husky vibrato produces effects both haunting and thrilling in the songs "I Don't Want to Know," "And I Was Beautiful" and "Each Tomorrow Morning."

Costumed as the Countess, Miss Dulaski displays a natural elegance. The ruffles, lace, and feather boas of her ensembles do not look ridiculous. Instead, they possess a faded grandeur. With her sweeping gestures and Old World demeanor, Miss Dulaski commands the stage, as does another veteran, Steven Cupo, as the Sewerman who provides the Countess with the means to dispose of the greedy businessmen who threaten to turn Paris into one giant oil field. The Sewerman's ballad to trash, "Pretty Garbage," sung with tinges of nostalgia and irony by Mr. Cupo, will have you looking at refuse in a whole new way.

The industrialists the President (Kim-Scott Miller), the Lawyer (John C. Bailey) and the Prospector (Joe Cronin) seem to be having a grand time being bad, executing ebullient cakewalks and barbershop harmonies to their waltzing odes to odiousness, "Just A Little Bit More" and "The Spring of Next Year," which includes the delicious rhyme, "there will be a sweet taste in the air/industrial waste in the air." And as Julian, the President's reluctant lackey who winds up siding with the Countess and her flock, Michael Hadary possesses a sweet tenor and a yearning quality that recalls Matthew Broderick.

These standout performances aside, "Dear World" suffers from inconsistent vocal and acting talents. The cast ranges from excellent down to embarrassingly amateurish, and these extremes throw off the show's gentle rhythm. The orchestra, consisting of two keyboardists, a percussionist, and a harpist, go overboard at times and come off as rinky-dink.

Still, "Dear World" is a neglected treasure of a musical, and well worth seeing for its glimpse of the simpler, more contemplative side of composer Jerry Herman.

*** (MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS)

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The Washington Post

'Dear World' Revisited: Tart & Sweet Mad Women

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 22, 2003; Page C01

In American Century Theater's modest but genial revival of the musical "Dear World," inspired by Jean Giraudoux's "The Madwoman of Chaillot," it's clear both why Jerry Herman's show fizzled in 1969 and why it deserved better.

As American Century's artistic director, Jack Marshall, recounts in a playbill essay, a sweet parable about a dotty old woman who manages to rid the world of corporate despoilers in one easy step must have seemed like naive treacle in 1969. That was an era of campus unrest, pollution, the Vietnam War and the still-bloody memory of assassinations.

Giraudoux wrote "Madwoman" during the Nazi occupation of Paris and died before its liberation. It wasn't produced until after his death and, in the '60s, became a sort of cult favorite. "The Madwoman of Chaillot" was sentimental -- dottiness equals peaceableness. And it suited Jerry Herman, he of "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame." His tuneful, if sometimes self-imitating, trademark has always been cockeyed optimism and spunk. If you hate spunk, don't see a Herman show.

Director John Moran has directed his able cast to sell Herman's (and Giraudoux's) point of view with a sense of what one could call, perhaps incongruously, straightforward whimsy. Somehow Moran never allows the show to sugar over.

The Countess Aurelia, a benevolent faded aristocrat with a romantic soul, is known as the Madwoman of Chaillot. As the play's magnetic center, Ilona Dulaski renders the countess with dignity, warmth and a touch of addlepatedness, yet, thankfully, she's never cute. Dulaski's mezzo has clearly lent itself to many an art song and aria, but now when moving from her smoky lower register into her more mellifluous middle range, she shifts gears with jarring abruptness. Even so, she does more than justice to the sunny, nostalgic tunes.

As Aurelia's fellow madwomen, both Jacqueline Manger as Constance, the flirtatious redhead-with-a-past, and Liz Weber as Gabrielle, the dithery spinster with an imaginary dog, bring charming, if occasionally overseasoned, eccentricity to their characters.

Kim-Scott Miller plays the villainous President, head of an unnamed corporation who longs to dig up all of Paris for oil. The Prospector (Joe Cronin) does the President's dirty work. Both actors are at once menacing and funny, but never too big for the room. Teamed with the President's Lawyer (John C. Bailey), they make neat work of "Just a Little Bit More" and "The Spring of Next Year," witty song-and-dance odes to greed. (Choreographer Pauline S. Grossman gets her non-dancers to execute droll soft-shoe routines here that just fit the small playing area.)

Lisa Carrier, as the waitress Nina, does a lovely job. Michael Hadary has a warm baritone and a winning manner as Julian, the idealistic young man who leaves the President's employ to help the Countess and falls in love with Nina. Steven Cupo as the Sewerman, the Countess's contact from the city's below-ground world and a spokesman for its working poor, is a little too reserved. He could bring more anger and nostalgia to his role when singing about the "Pretty Garbage" of the old days, before plastic and powdered eggs and "Ugly Garbage." Charming ballerina Mary Idone is lovely as the Mute, but director Moran has her sing with the ensemble during big numbers. It's incongruous and a distraction.

Music director Daniel Sticco, playing an electronic keyboard, conducts his small ensemble with crisp panache, although the keyboards (there's a second one, plus percussion and a harp) have a tinny, canned effect when they synthesize orchestral chords. Sticco allows the un-amplified cast to be heard and fills the room with big, if not quite beautiful, sounds when the score demands.

In Theater II of Arlington's Gunston Arts Center, a serviceable black-box performance space with good acoustics, John Story's set is spare, but suffices. Pam McFarlane's costumes go into more luxurious detail. The Countess Aurelia and her fellow madwomen wear threadbare lacy gowns in pre-World War I styles, with layers of pink, brown and beige, and boas and hats to match.

True, the "Dear World" score can display some of Herman's clunkier lyrics. The title song, a hymn to cleaning up a corrupt world, has such lines as "Kill the infection / Cut out the growth." Yech.

But the musical feels fresh and true to Giraudoux's intent, if not always to his aesthetic. "Madwoman" can be gooey, but somehow the musical cuts it with a little squeeze of lemon, and American Century is the lemonade stand that's selling it as a simple pleasure right now.

Dear World, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, based on "The Madwoman of Chaillot" by Jean Giraudoux. Directed by John Moran. Set design, John Story; lighting, Ayun Fedorcha; sound, David Meyer. Approximately 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Aug. 9 at Gunston Arts Center Theater II, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-553-8782.

2003 The Washington Post Company


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