Broadway tuner flops don’t die, they live on in original cast recordings. That’s certainly the case with “Dear World,” the 1969 folly that even a star turn by an arguably miscast Angela Lansbury knocking strong Jerry Herman numbers out of the park couldn’t save. Betty Buckley proves much happier casting and she’s easily the best thing about the show’s belated U.K. preem, in which helmer-choreographer Gillian Lynne fails to steady the show’s fatal vacillations between sledgehammer corporate satire and indulgent whimsy.
It’s hard to think of another show from a top name that so underlines the adage that there are three things you have to get right in a tuner: the book, the book and the book. And (possibly) the most shocking thing about this production is that its fey, tension-free book is not the famously flawed original but a rewrite by David Thompson.
Songs have been re-ordered and cut numbers re-inserted but the show still has almost nothing by way of dramatic action. Nor, aside from the Countess, does it have characters with, well, character. Instead, everyone has a single characteristic which encourages rabbit-in-the-headlight performances from certain parties and, at best, one-note interpretations from nearly everyone else. Without development, it’s hard to care about anyone.
The plot, for want of a more accurate term, remains the same. After a wince-inducing mimed prologue suggesting the fate of Paris during World War II, a devilish prospector (Anthony Barclay) chancing upon a streetside bistro senses that there is oil beneath him. Enter three identically dressed corporate bad guys who, blithely ready to seize the opportunity, enlist conveniently naive Julian (Stuart Matthew Price) to blow up the bistro with a bomb.
Deciding not to go through with the plan — a case of off-stage inaction — Julian returns and the eccentric Countess declares she will thwart the capitalists and save the bistro and the (dear) world. Living, as she does, in the basement above the sewer, she asks the Sewerman (Paul Nicholas) for guidance.
The late arrival of the Countess’ outlandish friends Constance (nicely arch Annabel Leventon) and Rebecca Lock’s amusingly mad Gabrielle (she has an imaginary dog) elicits one of Herman’s cleverest songs, “Tea Party Trio.” But sadly, it exempifies what’s wrong: For all its cunning triple counterpoint, the song, like almost all of the score, serves no dramatic function but that of illustration. You admire the writing but nothing happens during or because of it.
Oddly, the same is true of the choreography, which puts the cast though their paces but never raises the temperature. That the show manages varying moods is largely attributable to Sarah Travis’ orchestrations for an eight-piece band (including, natch, accordion) and Herman’s score.
The latter switches between Jacques Brel-style tropes, as in the fierce carousel waltz of “I Don’t Want to Know” (delivered with panache by Buckley) and numbers whose lyrics are modeled on ones from his previous shows. “A Sensible Woman” is thematically not far from “Just Leave Everything to Me” from “Hello, Dolly” and the sentiments of “Open a New Window” from “Mame” are often found loitering with intent.
Until the alarmingly ramshackle finale that seems not even to convince the cast, let alone the audience, the show is held together by Buckley who is in bold voice and a walking wardrobe of Ann Hould-Ward’s extravagant silks and satins. But aside from camp followers (pun intended) this production is for Herman completists only.