Writers: Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee
Music and Lyrics: Jerry Herman
Director and Choreographer: Gillian Lynne
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Jerry Herman clearly has a liking for formidable middle-aged ladies. Having struck gold with Hello, Dolly! and Mame, he chose to adapt The Madwoman of Chaillot, a play by Jean Girardoux and this musical is the result. But sadly, the hat trick of hits eluded him when it opened on Broadway in 1969 and only now is it getting its first UK staging. So the key question was whether this is a forgotten treasure from a golden age of Broadway or was there a very good reason for its long spell in obscurity?
The “madwoman” is Countess Aurelia, played here by Betty Buckley, who marshals a group of her equally eccentric friends to thwart a plot by business moguls to turn the Paris of 1945 into an oil field. It is described as “a musical fable”, making it clear at the outset that Dear World will have very little foundation in the real world and, accordingly, the charming sets, designed by Matt Kinley, conjure up familiar romanticised Parisian images. Even so, amid all the whimsy, there is satire of corporate greed and environmental ruin that is even more topical now than when the show was written
It is interesting that Angela Lansbury, who played the lead originally, has been quoted as partly blaming the show’s failure on the size of the theatre, feeling that the staging needed intimacy and charm. No such excuses can be offered here, as the theatre is both small enough to allow intimacy and large enough to have proper sets and choreography. Yet this is still not quite the lost gem that we hoped for. It is all very uneven, at its best rousing, but at its worst plodding. The title song and One Person are catchy anthems typical of Herman, and most of the comedy numbers work very well, but some other songs, particularly in Act I, are riddled with cliches and instantly forgettable.
Buckley has got what it takes to carry a show like this and she does so with aplomb. Paul Nicholas clearly enjoys himself leading the support and Ayman Safiah is very affecting, dancing and miming as the Mute. Katy Treharne has a delightful soprano voice but she and Stewart Matthew Price are given very little opportunity to make a lasting impact as the young lovers. As two other “mad” ladies, Rebecca Lock and Annabel Leventon are highly amusing in their routines with Buckley, while Peter Land, Jack Rebaldi and Robert Meadmore playing the moguls, relish the cynical lyrics of their songs together.
In view of her background as a choreographer, it is a little disappointing that the director does not include more dance and, generally, that she fails to liven things up during some dull patches between songs. But leaving aside the many quibbles, there is still a great deal to enjoy and it should not have taken over 40 years to get this show to these shores.