Bristol Riverside Theatre is closing its 21st season with “Dear World,” Jerry Herman’s musical version of Jean Giraudoux’s mid-20th- century classic “The Madwoman of Chaillot.” The play was written in 1943 and first produced in 1945, after Giraudoux’s death. Translated into English by Maurice Valency, it opened on Broadway in 1948 and ran for some 14 months. The musical version dates to 1969, as does a film version, which starred Katherine Hepburn.
Originally conceived by Herman as a small-scale work, “Dear World” was, in his view, manhandled by its original Broadway producers. With a major star, Angela Lansbury, on board, the producers felt the need for a large-scale work; the changes upset Herman. He has tinkered with it over the years, and in this latest version has brought it back to the scale he had originally had in mind.
This production, for example, features a chamber ensemble: music director Mark Yukanin, who also plays keyboard; three string players (violin, cello, and bass); a woodwinds player; a horn player; a percussionist; and another keyboard player. One of the joys of this production is that, except for the keyboard instruments, the players are not miked. What the audience hears is the actual sound of the instruments, unaltered by electronic adjustments. (The singers are heavily miked.) And the playing is first rate — though not always audible — perhaps because the night I was there some members of the audience talked loudly through the entire overture to the second act.
The villains in “Dear World” are four wealthy men, President #1, President #2, and President #3 — who have become wealthy not by doing any work but by speculating, buying and selling stock and other forms of paper — and a prospector. The prospector has decided that Paris sits on a huge oil field, and his idea is to drill through whatever stands between him and the oil. Since the authorities will not give him permission to destroy buildings to look for oil, he sends an employee with a bomb to blow up the authorities’ office building. The young man fails at his mission but ends up an ally of Countess Aurelia, who is the Madwoman of Chaillot of the original title and the heroine of the play.
The countess decides to counterattack, and by pretending to be sympathetic to the men’s goals, tricks them into destroying themselves, rather than Paris or the rest of the world. One of the side effects of her success is that the air suddenly smells fresher, the smog has gone, and Parisians are once again carefree and joyous.
Knowing that Herman has updated his original version of “Dear World,” some may be surprised to learn that the idea of digging for oil under the buildings of modern Paris was part of Giraudoux’s play. Although this latest version does occasionally seem dated or perhaps just quaint, some of the confusion may stem from the fact that the countess dresses herself in clothes from another era, specifically dated to 1885 in Valency’s translation.
“Dear World” has a cast of 13, which is large by today’s standards, and all but two of them are members of Actor’s Equity, which may be challenging to the company’s budget. Mary Gutzi, who is new to Bristol Riverside, plays the countess; Katie Babb is Nina, her assistant, who with Ryan Driscoll, as Julian, the young man who had worked for the villains, provides the love interest. Both of them are also new to Bristol Riverside. Special mention should be made of Steve Luker, as the Sewerman, who lives down in the sewers and knows what really goes on there. He entertains with mangled language and a wonderful dance routine. Also notable is Noah Mazaika, who plays a mute and communicates by signs, which Nina interprets for the rest of the cast and the audience.
“Dear World” has a stunning set, designed by Nels Anderson, who has created many sets for Bristol Riverside, including the one for “I Do! I Do!,” which opened the 21st season. The first thing audience members notice as they walk into the theater is a tall, thin, elegantly decorated art nouveau building (think Tiffany lamp transformed into a building), which houses Countess Aurelia’s home and cafe. The building is dramatically removed for the second act, unveiling the interior, which includes a locked descending spiral staircase that plays a major role in the plot.
Keith Baker, Bristol Riverside’s artistic director, has directed “Dear World.” Maintaining clarity with a cast this large and a plot this complicated is no small feat. The costumes are the work of Lisa Zinni, the choreography that of Gregory Daniels; both of them were also involved in “I Do! I Do!” Daniels certainly deserves extra credit for the jubilant and entertaining soft-shoe routine the four villains (Gene Terruso, Alan Kutner, F. Brendan Mulvey, and Kenneth Boys) perform as they prepare to go down the stairs and find their oil.
The crazy woman who’s talking sense and the self-justifying arguments of the greedy are recurring motifs in many works of fiction. And ordinarily one is pleased to see a play stand up so well over time. But with “The Madwoman of Chaillot” it is in fact depressing that so much of the play still seems so timely. But please don’t take this as an argument not to go see for yourself how much fun can be found in “Dear World.”
“Dear World,” through Sunday, May 18, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. A musical fable by Jerry Herman. $34 to $42. 215-785-0100.