Betty Buckley Bids to Save ‘Dear World’ on London Stage

“Musical theater” and “whimsy” are words which should never be seen together. It’s enough to strike terror into theater-goers everywhere.

“Dear World” radiates whimsy like a nuclear warhead. It’s one reason why the Jerry Herman show (he of “Hello Dolly” fame) flopped on Broadway in 1969. Four decades on, the belated U.K. premiere tries to resuscitate the corpse.

Set in Paris, it tells the story of Countess Aurelia (Betty Buckley), an eccentric who lives under a cafe. When businessmen try to blow up her cafe to drill for oil, she takes action.

Oil? Paris? Eh? The whimsical McGuffin that motors the plot -- or rather doesn’t -- is the least of the show’s problems.

The centerpiece of Act 2 is a mock trial, in which the Countess pretends to charge the businessmen with their capitalist crimes. One of her jolly oddball friends called The Sewerman (Paul Nicholas) represents the villains in their absence.

A trial without the defendants? If there’s a better way to make an hour stretch into an eternity, I haven’t come across it.

It’s a shame for Broadway hoofing legend Betty Buckley. She commands the stage, and finds a tiny bit of grit in the lead role to counterbalance the feyness.

There isn’t much grit in Gillian Lynne’s cute production. It’s like being run over by a candy floss truck. Repeatedly. Rating: **.

A second-rate piece of work doesn’t unfailingly have to mean a second-rate production. Carl Zuckmayer’s heavy-handed satire “The Captain of Kopenick” (1931) gets a lavish and enjoyable staging at the National Theatre.

It’s 1910. Wilhelm Voigt (Anthony Sher) is an ex-convict who finds a second-hand Prussian uniform, and then gets mistaken for a military captain. He takes his new troops to storm the town hall, and get some papers to prove that he exists.

Director Adrian Noble takes what’s best in the piece and turns it into a spectacular comic carnival. The enormous multilevel set spins merrily up and down on its hydraulic lift. It’s the kind of staging that only the National has the resources to do, and it looks thrillingly expensive.

Anthony Sher is on top form in the title role. At first he’s an archetypal put-upon little guy, just trying to get by.

The uniform unleashes his inner Doberman. He barks orders, shouts commands, and stomps about like one possessed. It’s a fantastic comic turn. Rating: ****.

Mezzo Joyce DiDonato’s latest tour, with the catchy title “Drama Queens,” brought her to the Barbican last week. If you’re lucky enough to be in Spain or France over the next month or so, you can catch future dates. It’s a hot tip.

The repertoire, all composed for royal operatic characters, mixes familiar and unfamiliar baroque arias. She shows off her glistening voice and impossibly fleet coloratura in arias by Handel and Orlandini.

The violinist/director of Il complesso barocco brings things down a notch with an overdone performance of a Vivaldi concerto between arias.

Still, it has the effect of showing up DiDonato’s subtle artistry all the more. Rating: ****.

“Dear World” is at the Charing Cross Theatre. http://www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk +44-844-493-0650

“The Captain of Kopenick” is at the National Theatre. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000

For information about Joyce DiDonato’s tour: http://www.joycedidonato.com

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Excellent
****       Very good
***        Average
**         Mediocre
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on opera, Martin Gayford on art and Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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