- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

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.

***

WHAT: “Dear World,” music and lyrics by Jerry Herman

WHERE: American Century Theater, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Aug. 9.

TICKETS: $19 to $24

PHONE: 703/553.8782 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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