Sometimes forgotten musicals are hidden gems. Other times they are forgotten for a reason. The latter is the case with “Dear World,” being produced by Ten Thousand Things Theater Company.
This 1969 musical adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s play “The Madwoman of Chaillot” was written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee with music by Jerry Herman. All three had collaborated quite successfully on “Mame” some years earlier and had perhaps hoped that lightning would strike twice. It didn’t.
Filled with awkward plot contrivances, a simplistically moralizing tone, bumper-sticker philosophizing and mostly forgettable songs, “Dear World” has remained a rarely produced piece.
The “madwoman” in the story is the Countess Aurelia (Janet Paone), an eccentric Parisian cafe proprietor with a stubborn streak of idealism. When she and her ragtag bunch discover that nefarious business tycoons want to drill for oil beneath the cafe, these free-spirited companions decide to foil the plot and then rid the world of the mercenaries altogether by sending them into the underworld that lurks beneath the sewers.
Voilà, as soon as the evil ones depart, the sun shines and life is beautiful again.
It’s to the credit of director Sarah Rasmussen and a strong cast that Ten Thousand Things’ production mostly manages to overcome its material. Paone imbues the role of Aurelia with a steely authority beneath a surface of distracted eccentricity and offers an ironically world-weary tone and aura of regret that add some depth to the play’s shallow sentimentality.
The most captivating moments in “Dear World” come when Paone is joined by Thomasina Petrus and Christina Baldwin as dotty friends Constance and Gabrielle. Petrus’ regal serenity and incisive wit provide an ideal comic counterpoint to Baldwin’s giddy, giggly turn as a daffy nitwit with an imaginary dog.
This pair also join Fred Wagner to don the roles of the evildoers; the three offer a vivacious sense of wicked glee as they lust after the sweet scent of filthy lucre.
Sheena Janson lends a lovely voice as the cafe’s waitress and provides interpretation for Shawn Vriezen’s signing as a deaf waiter. JuCoby Johnson makes the most of his thin role as the hapless young man who reveals the evil plot, while Kris Nelson does double duty as an evil oil prospector and the heart-of-gold Sewer Man.
Capable work by Rasmussen and her cast, as well as dazzlingly virtuosic musical accompaniment by Peter Vitale, can’t completely offset “Dear World’s” flaws, but they go a long way toward lending charm and verve to this unlikely fable.
Lisa Brock is a Minneapolis writer.