Ten Thousand Things Theater Company is unique in many ways. With simplistic sets, touring shows that visit places such as shelters, prisons, and mental health clinics, and performing pieces in fully lighted spaces, they produce shows that resist certain theater norms. Dear World is no different. A show that hit Broadway in 1969 starring Angela Lansbury and closed after only 132 performances, Dear World was a flop. It was criticized for being impossible to follow and that the score composed by Jerry Herman was too bombastic for the delicate story. However, in Ten Thousand Things more than capable hands, under the direction of Sarah Rasmussen (new artistic director of the Jungle Theater), this production roots out what is at the heart of the show and performs the piece with simplicity, poise, and a lot of heart.
The show opens with a cafe waitress, Nina (Sheena Janson), looking through a champagne glass and marveling at the “fascinating view” around her. In a theater-in-the-round setting and with the lights fully up, her view is at the audience and instantly immerses us in this unique version of Paris. From there on, we are no longer in a world quite the same as ours – it is a place where oil can be found underground in Paris, where sewer men can sing beautiful ballads, where villains do not conceal their misdeeds but celebrate them in a fully array of evil, and where the mystical and reasonable interweave. It is beautifully fable-like: it isn’t quite real but it is a world that certainly mirrors ours.
The plot is relatively basic: a prospector (Kris Nelson) discovers that a cafe owned by the eccentric Countess Aurelia (Janet Paone) hides a great wealth of oil beneath its surface. Rather than proceed with any traditional business maneuverings, the prospector and three manipulating big-business politicians known as the Presidents (Fred Wagner, Thomasina Petrus, and Christina Baldwin) decided to handle things directly and horrifically – they will simply blow-up the cafe. They coerce their intern of sorts, Julian (JuCoby Johnson), to deliver the bomb but, instead, he throws it into the river. Thinking he is about to drown himself, a policeman (Fred Wagner) saves him and brings him to the cafe where Aurelia, Nina, and Alain (Shawn Vriezen) help him. Upon seeing each other, Nina and Julian instantly fall in love.
After discovering that such an evil plot exists, Aurelia must come to terms with the fact that her world is not as beautiful as she wishes it to be. Disgusted that the wonderful Paris could be blown to smithereens by people who care only for money, Aurelia sets out to save her cafe, the city, and the whole world, employing the help of Madame Constance and Madame Gabrielle (Thomasina Petrus and Christina Baldwin) and a sewer man (Kris Nelson), to help put things right and to give Nina and Julian a world in which their love can exist.
Admittedly, there are moments where the weakness of the script appear and it is easy to see how a large-scale Broadway production did not succeed. However, this production works through the weaknesses with rich characterization, audience interaction, and humor. The character of Alain (who is deaf and not even given a name in the original) has been expanded and the use of ASL is explored throughout the show, used to bring out important moments of dialogue and paired wonderfully as choreography during the title song. With simple orchestrations of accordion, keyboard, drums, woodwinds, and strings, as well as musical sound effects, the minimizing of the score shows the true beauty of the composition and discovers the delicacy that was wanted in the Broadway production.
On top of all of this is a powerful message – though the Presidents and prospector are humorous and over the top, they clearly represent real issues in our current world. Full of environmental, political, and humanitarian concerns, Dear World captures the longing for change and shows how such change is possible, although it is not without cost. It is timely show and the ability for Ten Thousand Things to perform this for a wide variety of audiences is wonderful. Overall, the show exhibits hope that things can – and will – get better if we care to fight back. As Aurelia says at the end, “Nothing is ever so wrong in the world that a sensible woman can’t set it right in an afternoon.”
Dear World is performing through January 31st at Bedlam Lowertown in St. Paul and from February 4-7 at Open Book in Minneapolis. Ticket and show information can be found at the Ten Thousand Things website.
Want more information on the original production of Dear World? Check out the book Not Since Carrie by Ken Mandelbaum, a collection of stories about 40 years of musical flops.