Short Stage Reviews

Hans Christian Andersen; Dear World

Hans Christian Andersen

There are some truly beautiful sequences in this uneven ACT world premiere, and it's difficult to understand the sometimes hostile reaction it's received from local critics. Frank Loesser's dopey songs from the idiotic 1952 Danny Kaye film don't work, and Irish playwright Sebastian Barry's new book is somewhat fractured, but so much of this production perfectly captures Andersen's dark, lovely world -- one in which animals, flowers, and children's toys all have consciousness; horrific punishments await the wicked; and heaven is eternal but redemption is possible even in hell. Above all, the magical aerial work director and choreographer Martha Clarke incorporates creates a spell that the show's flaws never fully break. In the opening sequence, mermaids float and swoop against a blue background as men in black top hats and overcoats spiral slowly down from the top of the proscenium. One mermaid drifts down and clutches the hand of a man, slowly drawing him up to the unseen surface. This is Andersen's shadow (Rob Besserer), who leads the soon-to-die Andersen (a noble and tragic John Glover) on a tour of his life. We learn Andersen's difficult history; his stories are enacted, peopled by his family and acquaintances, as fairies, witches, and enchanted beings glide through the scenes. In a staging of "The Nightingale" in which Jenny Lind (Teri Hansen) is the beautiful bird and Andersen's beloved grandfather (George Hall) is the Emperor, a mandarin holding a glowing Chinese lantern rises from the floor to float in a slow arch over the stage -- there's never been a more luminous theatrical moon. Chase and Barry recast Loesser's songs as darkly as possible, sometimes with unfortunate results: A pair of illicit lovers awaiting execution, nooses around their necks, sing "No Two People," and it's a howler. But the show's concept and Clarke's enchanted staging often convey the shadowy beauty of Andersen's stories and the sadness of his life. There's much that's wrong about this show, but what's right is stunning.


Details

Hans Christian Andersen Through Oct. 8 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Admission is $21-67; call 749-2228.

Dear World Through Sept. 24 at the Eureka Theater, 215 Jackson (between Battery and Front), S.F. Admission is $19-22; call 788-1125.

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Dear World

Jean Giraudoux's strange play The Madwoman of Chaillot, a fable about the German occupation, is precariously balanced between imaginative idealism and sentimentality. It's a dangerous choice for adaptation as a musical, a genre in which sentiment can easily run amok, and in Dear World, Jerry Herman's horrendous songs derail Giraudoux completely. The resulting wreckage is a pile of eccentric kitsch. With that old chestnut of a concept the Sanity of the Insane careering about, we're in Man of La Mancha land. The better numbers are dull and inert; the worst are ludicrous, none more so than the title song: "Please show the whole human race, World,/ You're not a terminal case, World." And when the 42nd Street Moon ensemble has to repeat a verse sotto voce and staccato, the false razzmatazz is painful. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's book is superficially faithful to Giraudoux, but the changes they do make play right into Herman's squishy sensibility. As the Madwoman, Meg McKay struggles with her bland songs and adopts a quavery and theatrical British accent, which garners a few laughs but it also causes her performance to lag. Steve Rhyne is sleekly evil as the Prospector, sporting a goatee and greased hair, and Lianne Marie Dobbs traipses around sweetly as the waitress Nina, though she's slightly ill at ease with her tune "I've Never Said I Love You." (Maybe she realizes it stinks.) Mike Early as Julian has a strong voice, but otherwise appears uncomfortable; also, why is he wearing jeans when everyone else is in costume? Christian Cagigal is energetic as always, and John-Elliott Kirk is a humorously gallant Sewerman. But like Ross Perot's proverbial crazy aunt, this musical ought to be locked up in the attic.

 
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