Friday, July 22, 2011

DEAR WORLD by Jerry Herman

Presented by Magnormos and The Melbourne Recital Centre,
11th July 2011

Reviewed by Bill  Stephens

Magnormos is an independent musical theatre production company based in Melbourne. It specialises in producing musicals by Australian writers, and landmark international works. Since 2002 Magnormos has presented showcase concert performances of more than 50 new Australian musicals, as well as the Australian premieres of Stephen Schwartz "Working", Kander and Ebbs "Flora The Red Menace", Mel Brooks "Archy and Mehitabel" and Stephen Sondheim's "Saturday Night".

In 2010, to celebrate the 80th Birthday of Stephen Sondheim, Magnormos produced a triptych of Sondheim musicals presented over three consecutive Monday nights. So successful was this initiative, that a second triptych was undertaken in 2011, this time to honour the 80th Birthday of Jerry Herman. The shows presented this  year were "Milk and Honey", "Dear World" and "Hello Dolly", each presented for one concert performance over three consecutive Monday nights in July.

As luck would have it I found myself in Melbourne on 11th July, so took advantage of the opportunity to see my first Magnormos production, as well as pay my first visit to the magnificent Melbourne Recital Centre.

"Dear World" is based on the Jean Giraudoux play "The Madwoman of Chaillot". Jerry Herman wrote the music and lyrics. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote the book. The original Broadway production in 1969 provided Angela Lansbury with her seond Tony Award, following her career-making performance in "Mame". However "Dear World" did not repeat the success of "Mame" and closed after only 132 performances.

Even after revisions, as late as 2002, the book with its surreal characters and unconvincing political arguments is still problematic. However the show contains enough humour and lovely Jerry Herman songs to easily justify the attention lavished on it in this charming staging by Magnormos, directed by Scott Hendry, and choreographed by Alana Scanlan.

The evening contained several delightful surprises, not the least being the quality of the production. Even though it had been advertised as a 'concert staged' book-in-hand presentation, none of the cast referred to their scripts during the performance. All appeared on top of their roles, sang confidently, offered well thought-out interpretations, wore appropriate costumes, and execcuted Alana Scanlan's attractive choreography with panache.

Christina Logan-Bell made clever use of projected slides and minimal props to provide a delightfully simple,  evocative Parisienne setting. Sensitive lighting design by Lucy Birkinshaw-Campbell, ensured attractive performance areas for both indoor and outdoor scenes. A small, perfectly balanced on-stage band, conducted by Trevor Jones, provided impressively secure accompaniment for the lovely Jerry Herman songs, and thankfully, the amplification was tasteful and unobtrusive.

But best of all were the performances.

Deidre Rubenstein offered a remarkably brave turn as Countess Aurelia, the role originated by Angela Lansbury. Despite being stricken with a nasty cold which would have sidelined many lesser performers, she managed stylish, authorative interpretations of the show's big numbers "I Don't Want to Know", "Dear World" and "One Person", displayed considerable comedic prowess in "Tea Party Trio" and was heart-breakingly poignant in "And I Was Beautiful". Her phrasing of the dialogue in particular was a joy throughout. Hers was a star-quality performance in every way, and a privilege to witness.

Suffering no restrictions whatever, Jackie Rees and Maureen Andrew were vocally brilliant and joyously funny as Countess Aurelia's two eccentric friends, who join her in her attempt to prevent the money-hungry corporations from ripping up her enchanted corner of Paris. Both made the most of every opportunity that came their way; Maureen Andrew being particularly wicked with her imaginary poodle.

Grant Smith was also outstanding with his delightfully mannered interpretation of The Sewerman. Ross Chisari as the mute, and Jon Jackson, Casey Gould and Nicholas Renfree-Marks as the greedy corporate presidents, all contributed memorable moments.

Sweet-voiced Angela Harding (Nina) made a strong impression with the pretty "I've Never Said I Love You", as did Joe Kosky (Julian) as her love interest. Together they were an attractive couple. Mark Doggett, David Spencer and Lyall Brooks all added strength to the excellent ensemble cast.

Besides providing the opportunity to see a rarely performed musical by a major composer, Magnormos have also succeeded in providing a memorable evening of music theatre, and if the other two productions in this Jerry Herman Triptych were as superbly presented as "Dear World", Melbourne theatre-goers have indeed enjoyed a rare feast.