Ten Thousand Things’ big-hearted ‘Dear World’ is an antidote to despair

Photo by Paula Keller
Janet Paone (L) and Christina Baldwin in “Dear World”

Ditzy, big-hearted and borderline surreal, Ten Thousand Things’ “Dear World” is an antidote to despair. A mostly forgotten Broadway musical from 1969 – it closed in just under four months – TTT’s version has been dusted off, pared down and tweaked by Sarah Rasmussen, who signed on to direct long before taking her new job as the Jungle’s artistic director. Unburdened by the trappings of a big Broadway production, its essential sweetness shines through.

If you’ve never seen a TTT show, here’s what to know going in. Productions are performed first in prisons, low-income centers, shelters and schools before playing to the public, usually in the un-fancy performance hall at Open Book. Cast members take on multiple roles, quickly changing costumes just out of sight (and sometimes in sight). The audience is seated in two or three rows of chairs that surround the play, and the house lights stay on the whole time. Everyone can see everyone else, and you’re much closer to the action than you are in a regular theater. Sets are suggested by simple pieces of furniture, a few props and the occasional sign.

For “Dear World,” the orchestra is one man, Peter Vitale, who plays a multitude of instruments, often several at a time. It’s an unusually intimate theater experience, and while you might not be used to people breaking into song three feet in front of you, it’s actually pretty thrilling.

In “Dear World,” based on Jean Giraudoux’ play “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” Janet Paone is Countess Aurelia (the Madwoman), proprietress of a small café in Paris and a diehard optimist, despite having had her heart broken years before. Three hugely wealthy but still rapacious “presidents” — Fred Wagner, Thomasina Petrus and Christina Baldwin — plot to blow up the café and drill for oil under the city’s streets. The Countess and her equally screwball friends Madame Constance and Madame Gabrielle (Petrus and Baldwin), with help from the sprite-like Sewer Man (Kris Nelson, who also plays an oil prospector), hatch a plan to save the day, the city and the world, all fully believing they can.

Meanwhile, love blooms between café server Nina (Sheena Nelson) and Julian (JuCoby Johnson), who works for the presidents. There’s an invisible dog named Dickie, a hot-water bottle where Constance hears voices, and a mysterious door that proves pivotal to the somewhat patchy plot, which caroms from a tea party to a trial. The whole thing lasts about an hour and 45 minutes, including an intermission. You’ll leave smiling.

“Dear World” doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t have to. It’s entertainment with a message – even one person can make a difference – but it doesn’t get preachy or hit you over the head. Think of it as a fable, loosely spun and set to music. The performances are spot-on; Paone is wonderful as the Countess, bringing a sort of earth-mother dignity to the role, and Baldwin is sublimely over-the-top as Madame Gabrielle, squeaking and cooing to Dickie the dog. The singing is lovely and the songs by Jerry Herman (who also composed the scores for “Hello, Dolly!,” “Mame” and “La Cage aux Folles”) are melodic and delightful. Tip: If you sit too close to Vitale, you might miss some of the more rapid-fire lyrics.

We particularly love what Rasmussen did with the previously minor role of the character known as the Deaf-Mute. She cast a deaf actor, Shawn Vriezen, and featured him so prominently that the title song begins with Vriezen signing the words. Then Paone begins to sing and they all join in, with everyone singing and signing: “Let’s show the whole human race, world/You’re not a terminal case/world … Be a dear world, and get well soon.” And, while you’re at it, someone please cast Vriezen in another play. He’s a powerful presence, and we often found our eyes going to him even when the main action was somewhere else.

“Dear World” continues through Jan. 24 at Open Book, moves to Bedlam Lowertown Jan. 28-31, then returns to Open Book for its final four performances (Feb. 4-7). FMI and tickets ($30; pay-what-you-can option for under 30).

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Photo by Rebecca J. Lawrence
Scott Artley

Like almost every other arts organization these days, it seems, Patrick’s Cabaret has a new executive artistic director. Scott Artley steps up from his previous position as the Cabaret’s performing arts curator under Amy Hero Jones, who resigned in December after nine years as executive director.

Before joining Patrick’s in 2014, Artley worked at Mixed Blood, the Walker, the Fringe Festival and the Southern and ran his own independent arts consulting practice. Over the years, he has developed his own multidisciplinary creative practice grounded in a Queer perspective, producing visual and performance art in underground spaces, theaters and galleries in the Twin Cities.

Founded by Patrick Scully, now in its 30th anniversary season, Patrick’s Cabaret produces work by hundreds of artists each year, with a particular focus on making space for artists of color, with disabilities, and on the LGBT/Queer spectrum to tell their stories.

Artley also turns 30 in 2016. And his last name starts with “Art.”

In a statement, board chair Peter Foster praised Artley as representing “a new generation of arts leaders thinking deeply about what it means to be an arts organization in our time.” Artley pledged to continue the Patrick’s tradition of “bringing together a community of people to share an experience, to breathe the same air.”

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If you have tickets to Dave Eggers & Marlon James in Conversation on Feb. 4, you should know that the event has been moved from Hamline Church United Methodist to Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul because of high ticket demand. All proceeds support Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute’s creative writing and academic programs for kids. Doors at 7:30, starts at 8. FMI and tickets ($25 general admission, with VIP and post-party options available).

The picks

Reginald Edmund

Tonight (Tuesday, Jan. 19) in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio: “Black Lives, Black Words: Twin Cities.” Initiated, curated and produced by playwright Reginald Edmund (“The City of the Bayou Collection”), this event is part of a shared project with Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, and London that explores the question “Do black lives matter today?” Local black artists including E.G. Bailey, Carlyle Brown, Sha Cage, Laurie Carlos, James Austin Williams, Idris Goodwin, ShaVunda Horsley, Kyra Calvert, Abdi Phenomenal, Harrison David Rivers, and Toki Wright will each present original 10-minute plays. Run time 2 hrs 15 min. 7:30 p.m. FMI. Sold out; contact the box office (612-377-2224) about availability.

Wednesday at the Amsterdam: “Music in the Making: Derek Bermel.” Composer, conductor and clarinetist Bermel, whose “Murmurations for Strings” will be performed by the SPCO in four concerts starting Friday morning, speaks with Classical MPR’s Steve Seel about his music, process, background and influences. “Murmurations” was inspired by the flocking movements of starlings; Bermel’s background includes the study of folkloric music traditions. 7 p.m. Free, but reservations are required. Bermel’s piece is part of the “Veronika Eberle Plays Mozart” concerts taking place in the Ordway Concert Hall (Friday-Saturday) and Benson Great Hall (Sunday). FMI and tickets ($13-$53).

Thursday at the Fitzgerald Theater: “This Is Spinal Tap.” Celebrating its 11th birthday, The Current turns it up to 11 with a free screening of Rob Reiner’s mockumentary about one of England’s loudest bands. New Current DJ Brian Oake will be there, and the group Little Man will perform, and the bar will be open, and you’re welcome to recite your favorite lines, sing along, tweet and whatever. Doors at 6, film at 7. FMI. Free, but registration is required.

Courtesy of the American Swedish Institute
A watercolor by Lars Lerin

Friday at the American Swedish Institute: “Akvarell Bash: The Watercolor Worlds of Lars Lerin Exhibit Opening.” Especially if you think that watercolor is mostly about pretty flowers, autumn leaves and misty landscapes, this show will make your head explode. The famously shy Swedish artist creates monumental works of depth and often darkness – massive cityscapes and landscapes, scenes from his world travels, ships at sea, walls of books. A now-typical ASI party, the opener will include live music by Improvestra, art-inspired cocktails and treats from FIKA, a cash bar, guided tours and excellent people-watching. 7 p.m. Opening remarks at 7:30 by Bera Nordal, curator at Nordiska Akvarellmuset (Nordic Watercolor Museum). FMI and tickets ($35/$30 members). The exhibition stays up in the Osher Gallery and throughout the Turnblad Mansion until May 22.

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