(Juan A. Ramirez’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/16; via Pam Green’ Photo: Donna Murphy, center, as Countess Aurelia in the Encores! production of “Dear World” at the New York City Center.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)
Review: In ‘Dear World,’ Donna Murphy Leads a Righteous March
Jerry Herman’s rarely seen 1969 musical is revived in an Encores! production at New York City Center.
NYT Critic’s Pick
If the composer-lyricist Jerry Herman loved one thing, it was a brassy dame who bulldozes past all obstacles in her quest for the best possible life for herself. The women at the center of his best-known shows, “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame,” are pathologically positive, speaking directly to our vanities and vulnerabilities — and are celebrated for it.
Who better to teach a larger-than-life lesson than a strident diva in a bold headpiece? Such is the case with Countess Aurelia, the protagonist of his 1969 flop, “Dear World,” which New York City Center’s Encores! has revived in a blissed-out concert production that opened on Wednesday.
Led by Donna Murphy, and directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes with laissez-faire humor, it presents a smaller, looser, but still effective Herman elixir.
Based on a fable-like Jean Giraudoux play, “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s book follows the Countess Aurelia (Murphy), a Parisian eccentric who spends her days al fresco at the Cafe Francis, learning to love all before her “through the bottom of the glass.” When clouds (whimsically rendered by Paul Tate dePoo III as sparse hangings above his bohemian set of chaises, trunks and old clocks) threaten her outdoor seating, she simply wills them away with folksy charisma.
But her peace is disturbed when a young official, Julian (Phillip Johnson Richardson), is sent by the President (a swaggering, delectably petulant Brooks Ashmanskas) to blow up the cafe so they can drill into oil recently discovered beneath. With the water supply already affected, Aurelia leads the charge against the bureaucrats, aided by the friendly Sewerman (Christopher Fitzgerald) and her bosom buddies, Gabrielle (Ann Harada) and Constance (Andréa Burns), the Madwomen of Montmartre and of the Flea Market.
It’s easy to see how this fantastical musical could float away from a less confident, cleareyed director. Here, Rhodes (who helmed Herman’s “Mack & Mabel” for Encores! in 2020) emphasizes the kookiness of his well-sketched characters in a spacey way that makes everything feel, if not logical, then natural. His choreography is similarly simple, and works well for the ensemble, save for a vaguely anti-war, ballet-inspired solo performed during the entr’acte by Kody Jauron, who shines in a miming role.
The score is by far Herman’s most relaxed; if “Dolly” is a bottle of Champagne and “Mame” a speedball, “World” is a Shirley Temple (Aurelia herself only ever takes one sip of wine a day). It’s perhaps a side effect from having written new material for the film adaptation of “Hello, Dolly!” that same year, with songs tailored for the close-up rather than the chorus line.
The new Encores! music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s conducting is mostly swooning and enlivens the work, though she often opts for arrangements that warmly dissolve each number into a Parisian haze rather than charge up a triumphant belt. (Campbell, who did extensive research on the score’s many variations, has directed Philip J. Lang’s orchestrations toward a calmer phrasing than the original.) Only the crystal-clear voiced Samantha Williams, as the yearning waitress Nina, is allowed to soar vocally past the end of her stunning “I’ve Never Said I Love You.”