Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Dear World

Charing Cross Theatre, London


***


Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed and choreographed by Gillian Lynne




Betty Buckley and Paul Nicholas
Dear World is a whimsical piece of musical theatre from Jerry Herman. Inspired by the novel The Madwoman Of Chaillot and set in post WW2 Paris, it speaks of a wish to heal a world that is literally held “dear”. Much has been made of the show's chequered Broadway life and even in her programme notes director/choreographer Gillian Lynne apologises for its troubled history. In part, Lynne suggests, this is due to the show having come up against Hair when it premiered in the 1960's. Lynne's protestations are a little misplaced, as the work is far from being the composer’s finest.

Revolving around a wonderfully frivolous old lady, the Countess Aurelia, the story tells how she, in league with an as whimsically wise Sewerman,  hoodwink a trio of evil financiers, keen to lay waste to Paris in pursuit of oilfields that they have been duped into believing lie beneath the city's boulevards. Of course, good triumphs over bad in a tale that bears more than a passing nod to P L Travers’ Mary Poppins. For a magical nanny, read the Countess, the cheerful grimy sweep replaced by the filthy Sewerman and the bankers of course playing themselves. While the parallels between the two stories may be clear that is where any similarity ends, for in a songwriting contest between Herman and Shermans, Disney’s lyrical brothers win hands down.

This slight production however is redeemed by its performances. Betty Buckley is a wonderfully contrived Countess, a lady who refuses to look into the mirror in her hall, because she doesn’t like to see the old lady who lives behind the glass.  Buckley is a talented treat to watch throughout and her act two number And I Was Beautiful still marks her as a true diva. Paul Nicholas imbues the Sewerman with an ironic wisdom akin to Hamlet’s gravediggers. No airs and graces, just wry observations from a man who having seen all of the city’s garbage, knows the true realities behind the grand and the not-so-grand Parisian lives.

Notable in support are Rebecca Lock and Annabel Leveton, playing respectively a young virginal girl and an elderly but still libidinous lady, both delightfully dotty consorts of the Countess, who when the plot becomes almost too thin to discern, allow their caricatures to provide gently humoured relief. Stuart Matthew Price and Katy Treharne bring youthful vocal excellence to the show in a love interest between their two minor characters, of little relevance to the plot other than suggesting the world's promising future.

Whilst the show’s structure is dated, its heart still speaks loudly. One only has to read today of corporate fraud tainting our food chain with horsemeat, to know that some aspects of big business remain exploitative and ugly. The scenario that this fable presents of a humble Sewerman, one who deals with daily detritus, being wiser than the bankers’ besuited buffoons whom the Countess ultimately invites to descend to their grisly doom, speaks to us much as a fairy tale of wishes. Dear World is a cri de coeur to mend this fractured planet and whilst its arguments may be simplistic and a little far fetched, if one can suspend cynicism as well as disbelief then the performances on stage will capture the simple light-hearted and frothy elegance of a show not often seen.

Runs until March 30th 2013

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