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Michael Coveney: Chichester counts the musical cost in Dear World

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Like the RSC and the Globe before them, Chichester Festival Theatre has come up just £1m short of its fundraising target. So, having invited a group of journalists to the Ivy for breakfast yesterday morning, executive director Alan Finch said he wasn't at all averse to seeing a flurry of cheque books round the oval table in the upstairs private room.

Only partly in jest, Finch realises that raising the last £1m is always the hardest task, but he's done well in finding the other £21m (including £12m from the Arts Council) to complete a major refurbishment that will be mostly visible backstage and in the foyer areas when the theatre re-opens next year.

Meanwhile, the theatre's rebirth as a major West End supplier will be confirmed by the collaboration with Cameron Mackintosh on his revival of Barnum (with unknown Broadway star, Christopher Fitzgerald, who auditioned by balancing a chair on his forehead) in the temporary new tented auditorium, with seats for 1400, as in the theatre proper, called Theatre in the Park.

There are no plans to prolong the life of this semi-improvised Chichester tent beyond this summer, but the RSC said the same sort of thing about the Courtyard, which they've clung on to, and I bet everyone falls in love with The Shed at the National which is replacing the Cottesloe on a temporary basis, too.

Finch and artistic director Jonathan Church were at pains to emphasise how their Chichester audience had returned in droves over the past few years, and that they were actively driving down the age group by programming new work and popular musicals. Richard Eyre's Minerva revival of The Pajama Game, starring Joanna Riding, Hadley Fraser and Peter Polycarpou, should fit the bill nicely, and should also prove as hard to get into as Private Lives did last season.

The Chichester production engine is creating a visible diaspora, and Church proudly pointed out that Goodnight Mister Tom is out on tour after its successful run at the Phoenix, The Judas Kiss is a huge West End hit, Private Lives will open in town soon, Kiss Me Kate has followed the Olivier route from Chichester to the Old Vic and Sweeney Todd has just collected five Whatsonstage.com Awards.

In addition, Church's own Singin' in the Rain at the Palace has been re-cast for the next six months, and Yes, Prime Minister is the show "that won't go away."

It was surprising to learn, therefore, that only about £250,000 a year is coming back into the Festival coffers and that Finch has had to struggle to win back ten per cent from the commercial exploitation for what is in fact a charitable trust.

One of the first new projects in the new theatre will be a Chekhov trilogy (Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull) scripted by David Hare and directed by Jonathan Kent, using one company for all three, followed at some point by Kent again directing Imelda Staunton in Gypsy; and then a major revival of Guys and Dolls.

By which time Chichester really will have taken over the West End, or at least carved it up with the new producing companies of Michael Grandage, Jamie Lloyd and, it would now appear, the two Nicks (Hytner and Starr in post National Theatre guise). This will create all sorts of new alignments and possibilities with the theatre-owning powers that be of Nimax, ATG, Delfont Mackintosh and the Really Useful Group.

I wonder if anyone will ever do anything about the Arts in Covent Garden, such a promising venue that always seems programmed to hasten its sale into office property. The latest musical non-starter is The Tailor-Made Man (bad title) which recounts a fairly interesting story of MGM movie star William Haines who came "out" a bit too flamboyantly for the studio's liking, refused to marry Pola Negri (who wouldn't?!) and side-stepped suavely into interior designing.

The show is competently written, but that's about it. And the first night crowd included the ever exotic and Medusa-haired Nancy Dell'Olio, who is mounting a serious challenge to Christopher Biggins's status as chief attender of every opening of every envelope. Mind you, what a crush last night: it felt as if everyone had to be there just in case the show wasn't tonight.

Another venue that puzzles me is the newly named Charing Cross Theatre, under the Arches in Villiers Street, formerly the Players Theatre, proud home of The Boy Friend, Victorian burlesque pantomime and music hall turns. It's a sad echo of itself, and has somehow become a refuge for shows no-one wants to put on anywhere else.

At least Jerry Herman's 1969 flop musical Dear World has a sort of macabre fascination for musical theatre aficionados, not least because Gillian Lynne is its director and choreographer and Betty Buckley has been enticed from her Texas ranch to play the lead.

The musical fable, as it's billed, with a book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee, uses Jean Giraudoux's French comedy The Mad Woman of Chaillot ( I once saw the luminous Elisabeth Bergner play the role, supported by Christopher Gable), to provide a jaunty musical comedy about an eccentric old lovelorn Parisienne, the Countess Aurelia (Buckley), seeing off the greedy capitalists who strike oil underneath her street cafe.

Sure, there are some wistful ballads and a couple of typical Herman marching anthems, but the show is hopelessly lop-sided and unsatisfactory. Still, I enjoyed it quite a lot, not only for Buckley's performance, but also for the art deco Parisian designs of Matt Kinley, the comic edge of Annabel Leventon and Rebecca Lock as the Countess's fellow "mad" women (one of them has an imaginary dog) and the irrepressible chorus boy antics of Peter Land as one of three oily prospectors.
I doubt if the show is on Chichester's to-do list, somehow, but perhaps the Arts and the Charing Cross between them can flourish as a safety net for some of Broadway's "lost" musicals as well as the best of our unfashionable pre-Lloyd Webber repertoire. Grab Me A Gondola, anyone? Maggie May? Expresso Bongo?

Just look at what the little Union in Southwark is doing.The revelation of the week for me has not been the revival of A Chorus Line at the Palladium, but the brilliant resuscitation of Chess in a damp and smelly brick cellar under a Southwark railway arch. Check out Chess, mate: it's a corker - game, set and match!


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