(Above: Photo by John Bauguess)
By Randi Bjornstad
The musical now onstage at The Very Little Theatre is “Dear World,” based on a 1943 French play, “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” by Jean Giradoux.
Age notwithstanding, the play’s 74-year-old plot conjures up economic and social struggles as topical as today, as a band of down-and-outers try to keep a cartel of rich developers from destroying their humble Paris neighborhood by drilling for oil they covet to further bolster their wealth and position.
The production features music and lyrics by Gerald “Jerry” Herman — famous for his “Hello Dolly” compositions — and the words in between the songs, known as the “book,” were written by playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, but not that Robert E. Lee.
This Robert E. Lee was born in 1914 and lived until 1984, during which time he and Lawrence created some of the greatest stuff musicals have ever been made of, including their 1955 collaboration on “Inherit the Wind,” which became one of the most-produced plays ever. They also created the book for “Mame,” “Jabberwock,” and “Shangri-La.” Lawrence died in 2004.
Jerry Herman, for his part, is still with us. and most of his 85 years have been spent in the entertainment industry, starting in his childhood with parents who loved it. The family lived in Jersey City, N.J., but they spent their summers running a camp in New York’s Berkshire Mountains, where their son first became involved in theatrical performance and never aspired to anything but show business.
When “Dear World” opened on Broadway in 1969, it made Herman the first composer-lyricist ever to have three shows running on Broadway simultaneously. Angela Lansbury played the role of Countess Aurelia, for which she won a Tony for best leading actress in a musical.
Now in its 88th season, VLT opened its three-weekend run of the clash-between-good-and-evil musical on March 24, with Michael Watkins directing, assisted by Sharon Wetterling. The show has three performances remaining, on April 6, 7 and 8.
“The Madwoman of Chaillot,” in the original French known as “La Folle de Chaillot,” is the story of the eccentric but harmless Countess Aurelia, who learns that a cadre of corporate executives, bankers and other wielders of wealth and power are scheming to destroy the Chaillot section of Paris — and who knows what else — by drilling for the oil they believe exists in massive, wildly valuable pools beneath it.
The countess enlists the aid of other her fellow oddballs, who include a rag picker, flower girl, sewer man, military sergeant and a pair of young lovers, to fight back against what they saw then as today’s equivalent of the one-percenters. They even concoct a tea party scene in which they convict the evildoers drum up a scheme to accomplish their banishment and return the world to the happiness and light they dream it to be.
The VLT cast for “Dear World” features Michelle Sellers as Countess Aurelia in the title role, along with Erikajane Johnston, Annie Pusey, Cody Mendonca, Gene Chin, Sabrina Gross and Sheldon Hall in the other featured roles. They’re joined by Claude Offenbacher, Will Vanderbilt, Rob Roberts, Darius Bunce, Darryl Marzyck and Mark Anderson.
Jim Greenwood is musical director, with vocal direction by Gerald Walters and set design by Tim Tendick.
In announcing the musical, Watkins calls it a “funny one moment, rip your heart out the next” story and marvels at the “scarily timely” script.
“What first caught my attention was the music,” he said. “As I’ve gotten deeper into the show, I have been struck by how frighteningly on point it is in today’s world. It is the age-old story of how the few are willing to sacrifice the many for personal riches and power. It was timely back in the 1940s and is even more so now.”
When: 7:30 p.m. on April 6, 7 and 8
Where: The Very Little Theatre, 2350 Hilyard St., Eugene
Tickets: $19 on Thursday, $23 on Friday and Saturday; admission always $19 for students and senior citizens; tickets available at the box office from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. starting Wednesday, at 541-344-7751, or online at TheVLT.com
Special details: Assisted-listening devices available free on a first-come basis