Technically speaking, Dear World isn’t a very good musical. In fact, it’s well-nigh ridiculous, a shameless crowd-pleaser that is somehow baggy and thin at once, swapping character development and narrative coherence for broad strokes of platitude and attitude stitched together by the pomp-and-circus-pants of forced Parisian gaiety and bunk philosophical truisms. The songs are pretty good, though.
And big deal. Star Wars isn’t a very good movie, technically speaking, and for a lot of the same reasons. And yet, like Star Wars, a decent production of Dear World is capable of surviving on enthusiasm alone, like a carnival in the rain.
Very Little Theatre’s current production of the musical succeeds despite the ample impediments provided by its patchwork (and overworked) book, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. VLT’s staging overcomes a pandering spirit of political bonhomie on the strength of director Michael P. Watkins’ strong guidance, which seeks uplift through pure spirit, and strong performances, especially from the leads.
I suspect the show was chosen for its startling timeliness and the Manichean morality that drives it: A trio of corporate robber barons, named Presidents One, Two and Three (Will Vanderbilt, Claude Offenbacher and Rob Roberts) discover traces of oil directly beneath a Parisian bistro in 1945. Emboldened by a devious prospector (Gene Chin), the corporate thugs enlist an upstart executive, Julian (Sheldon Hall), to blow the place up. Julian foils the plot by attempting suicide, after which the corporation’s intentions are revealed to the colorful Countess Aurelia (Michelle Sellers, who carries the show with her sure comic timing and powerful, attractive voice) and her gang of oddballs.
As mentioned, the plot is flimsy and embryonic in places — especially, and inexplicably, in the love interest that develops between Julian and bistro waitress Nina (the wonderful Sabrina Gross) — while shooting off into absurd and ballooning tangents at other moments, such as the prolonged portrait of the Countess and her clan, which includes Mme. Constance (Erikajane Johnston), Mme. Gabrielle (Annie Pusey), The Mute (Darius Bunce) and others enlisted to save the world from greed and destruction.
It goes without saying that Dear World achieves a certain unmistakable frisson, a shock of recognition, in this Age of Trump; much of the pleasure to be found in VLT’s production derives from the realization that the more things change, the more they really do stay the same. The show, thanks in large part to Watkins’ nimble direction, comes across as a kind of slapstick tweeting back at power — a rambunctious and loose-limbed response to evil by a gaggle of grotesques and misfits. It’s a revolutionary fairytale with its tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Beyond these qualities, VLT’s production just looks and sounds great; the sets are by turns airy and plush, as the action moves from the outdoor bistro to the underground lair of the Countess, and the musical numbers are bouncy, triumphant and often quite funny. The whole production banks on a kind of nostalgic simplicity, a dreamy sense of good and evil, and in that sense it cashes in nicely — for all its world-saving schemes, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Dear World plays through April 8 at Very Little Theatre; $19-$23, tickets at thevlt.com or 541-344-7751.