Oct. 8, 2016 | By Bruce R. Feldman
“Dear World,” Valley Performing Arts Center, Northridge, CA., Sept. 30, 2016
Valley Preforming Arts Center opened its new season with an agreeable curiosity, a concert version of Jerry Herman’s rarely seen 1969 musical Dear World, starring Tyne Daly and a cast of show business veterans, including Vicki Lewis and Steven Weber.
The result was an evening of pleasant entertainment, but one that failed to excite, due in large part to an enervated performance from Tyne Daly in the title role, as well as a fragile book – reworked after the troubled Broadway production failed – and an undistinguished score that lacks the punch, resolve, and theatricality of Herman’s best work.
The musical is based on Jean Giraudoux’s 1943 comic fable, The Madwoman of Chaillot. While Herman has said that he set out to create a chamber piece, the show ended up on Broadway in a large, commercial theater. It flopped there, perhaps for some of the same reasons it doesn’t take flight in VPACs cavernous auditorium.
It is easy to conjecture what might have attracted Herman to the quirky material. In the mid-1960s, the composer-lyricist had produced two mammoth Broadway hits, Hello, Dolly and Mame, each centered around the indelible main character of a purposeful, irascible, though – of course, it’s Broadway – endearing woman who takes command of events and people to get what she wants.
Giraudoux’s heroine, Countess Aurelia, is similarly eccentric, lovable, and above all determined. She might be a bit dotty, but she knows what’s right. She’ll stop at nothing to undermine the plans of a group of evil businessmen to obliterate all Paris by turning it into a massive oilfield.
The play’s anti corporate greed, pro-environmental message was ahead of its time when it debuted some 70 years ago. Today’s audiences certainly will appreciate at least that aspect of Dear World.
Other elements of this well-intentioned production largely disappoint, starting with an uncharacteristcally pallid performance from Tyne Daly as Countess Aurelia. In her energetic TV work and on Broadway in one of the many revivals of Gypsy, the actress has shown that she has the chops to thrill an audience.
Here she appeared to be going for the kind of whimsy and understated, ersatz charm that might have fared better in a more intimate setting. Daly seems to have internalized her character, giving such an exceedingly gentle performance that at times she nearly receded into the scenery.
"Dear World" abounds with relevance and good intentions, but falls short on Broadway brio
Or she would have if there were any. This unvarnished concert version took place on a bare stage with, I’m pretty sure, just one sound effect and a minimal, indifferent lighting design. With no production values of any kind and, as already noted, a shaky book, the production rested entirely on the abilities of its cast and musicians to delight the audience.
Apart from Daly, the remainder of the 13-member ensemble showed a lot more spirit. The Broadway veteran Vicki Lewis knows how to sell a number. She appeared all too briefly in the role of Countess Constance. Stephen Weber was another stand out as the Sewer Man. As the narrator, Jane Leeves, adorable and funny on TV’s Frasier, sadly was given almost nothing to do.
Also on the plus side was Darryl Archibald’s first rate musical direction. While it was clear that his 25-piece orchestra played with sharp professionalism, its tone was muffled in the vast auditorium and lacked any semblance of Broadway brio. Given the choice to over-amplify or let the playing speak for itself, the production team chose the latter. Either way, the result was disappointing. VPAC would be doing its appreciative audiences a favor by improving the handsome hall’s acoustics.
Next up on VPAC’s Scenes & Songs series: Kelli O’Hara, Oct. 14. Hamilton’s Leslie Odom performs Nov. 17. Tickets at www.valleyperformingartscenter.org.