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DEAR WORLD at O’Connell & Company: Acting 10, Singing … not so much.

THE BASICS: DEAR WORLD, the 1969 musical by Jerry Herman based on Jean Giraudoux’s play THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT, presented by O’Connell & Company, directed by Kelli Bocock Natale, starring Mary Kate O’Connell, runs through October 22nd, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 at The Park School, 4625 Harlem Road, Snyder (848-0800). Runtime: 2-1/4 hours with one intermission. Wine, snacks, basket raffles.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: It’s post WWII, and self-proclaimed “Countess” Aurelia, the madwoman whose mission in life is to feed the stray cats of Paris, is living in the basement of the Francis café in the Chaillot District. She is dotty, presumably because of a love lost long ago, but is cogent when it comes to helping her friends. Now aware that “The Corporation” has plans to drill for oil under the streets of Paris, ruining the city of light forever, aided and abetted by those friends, both loopy and more grounded, Aurelia thwarts the greedy capitalists, saves the world, and returns joie de vivre à Paris.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Yes, it’s a Jerry Herman (HELLO, DOLLY!, MAME, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES) musical, but this is not a Broadway musical scaled back due to budget constraints. Actually, O’Connell & Company has mounted a production truer to Jerry Herman’s original “chamber musical” vision than the big Broadway show that won Angela Lansbury a Tony award.

Having just seen THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT last month at the vaunted Stratford Festival in Canada, I was familiar with the plot and the characters, each one of which is given a very generous role in the original play, resulting in a very long evening. Jerry Herman did a marvelous job of grabbing just the key moments so things move along briskly in DEAR WORLD.

Directed and choreographed by Kelli Bocock Natale, Mary Kate O’Connell is the Countess, and her acting chops are as strong as ever. There are several reasons that MK has a star embedded in the “Plaza of the Stars” in the downtown Theatre District, and one of them is her impeccable sense of comic timing.

The two other madwomen, played by Katy Miner and Amy Jorrisch, are very entertaining and help keep Act II moving along. However, I’m guessing that the score expects a little too much in the upper registers from all three of the madwomen. Yes, the three-man band was too loud (not just my opinion, by the way) for the size of the room, and yes, except for the pre-tuned piano, the clarinet and cello’s intonation was a bit wobbly too, but for the most part, the soprano voices just sounded thin and not quite pitch perfect.

One bright note was recent UB grad Gianna Palermo as Nina, the young waitress in love. Her facial expressions revealed talent and training far beyond her years and her young vocal chords were on pitch, although the sound was thin. With a little operatic coaching or a body mic she should do just fine and we hope to see her in many more roles.

Three lighting opportunities, in my opinion, were missed in this production. Yes, it’s a cliché, but when there’s a solo ballad, and it’s wistful, as in “I’ve never said I love you” or later “And I was beautiful” then the singer should be bathed in a pool of light as the rest of the stage goes dark. As the Geico commercial says “It’s what you do” but here they didn’t. And “the door” to the sewers could have been much more dramatic with a little lighting help.

The strongest combination of acting and singing while seeming to have a great time on stage belonged to Roger Vandette with the coveted role of Sewer Man. Permit me a little digression here. One of the hallmarks of great operatic singers is that they open their mouths, much more than “normal.” The poster child for this was the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti. When he sang, you saw every tooth filling. Well, sitting in the middle of our row for DEAR WORLD, when Vandette sang “Have a little pity on the rich” it was like looking down Pavarotti’s gullet. What a moment.

The other guys were fine, an experienced and well-rehearsed crew consisting of Jon May, Matt Gilbert, Matthew Mooney, Jeremy Kreuzer, and Joel Russlett. And a pleasant surprise was Nick Lama, who here revealed a stronger voice than I remember him having.

As mentioned, there are reasons why MK has a star in the sidewalk, and besides her acting, another reason is her ability to spot and nurture talent. So, on the way out, if they have any left, grab a poster of logos for the season’s productions designed by 17-year-old Clarence High School senior Gayle Petri. Very different.

Next up at O’Connell & Company is PAINTING CHURCHES (11/9 – 11/19) an Off-Broadway play by Tina Howe (and a finalist for the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) about the relationship between an artist daughter and her aging parents.

DEAR WORLD Rating: Two and a half Buffalos

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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