“Dear World” was a vehicle for Angela Lansbury, though one that otherwise crashed when it ran on Broadway for a mere 132 performances in 1969, even as Jerry Herman’s other musicals on Broadway at the time, “Hello Dolly” and “Mame,” kept running on and on. But the Encores concert version of this flop proves more than just a vehicle for Donna Murphy, who has taken on the role of Countess Aurelia, the Madwoman of Chaillot. It’s also a vehicle for other terrific talent, especially two of Broadway’s funniest character actors, Christopher Fitzgerald and Anne Harada, as well as a wonderful dancer named Kody Jauron who plays a French mime. Yet, for all the loving care that Encores has poured into “Dear World” – the 28-piece orchestra led by new Encores music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell is a dream; even Toni Leslie James’ Old World Parisian costumes are a delight – the show remains only a vehicle.
I realize the primary mission of Encores is to offer new life to old musicals, particularly those with scores that long have been underappreciated. But the long-running concert series at City Center deserves to be celebrated for what it also does well, giving great performers a long weekend to shine – which as it turns out, was my primary pleasure this time around. I certainly gave Herman’s songs a dutiful listen, but I think I understand what might have kept audiences half a century ago from fully appreciating them – because I don’t fully appreciate them now either.
The problem starts with how bad the book is, and not just because of the cockamamie plot. An evil corporation led by the President (Brooks Ashmankas) wants to blow up a café in the Chaillot section of Paris, because there’s oil underneath it, but they are stopped from doing so — lured into the sewer??? — by Countess Aurelia and her eccentric compatriots, the Madwoman of Montmartre (Harada) and the Madwoman of the Flea Market (Andrea Burns), as well as the Sewerman (Christopher Fitzgerald), the café’s waitress Nina (Samantha Williams) and Julian (Phillip Johnson Richardson), a former employee of the corporation who refused to do their dirty work, and fell instantly in love with Nina.
At least one can argue that the plot has acquired some new relevance, what with the urgency of climate change, and the role that’s played in it by fossil fuels. But it’s a genuine bafflement how book writers Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the same team w b ho wrote the play “Inherit the Wind” and the book for “Mame,” could have come up with dialogue that strains so hard to be funny or clever, and fails consistently to be either.
Given how labored the libretto, it makes sense that Jerry Herman would create songs that have little if any connection to it. He crafted songs for the Countess that are really about aging, most notably “I Don’t Want To Know” (“If music is no longer lovely/If laughter is no longer lilting/If lovers are no longer loving/ Then I don’t want to know.”) and “And I Was Beautiful” ( “He stood and looked at me/And I was beautiful/For it was beautiful/How he believed in me”)
These are lovely, yes, especially when delivered by a pro like Donna Murphy. But they feel generic, without much excuse to belong in this musical, yet not distinctive enough to work as stand-alone popular standards
Oddly, even the jaunty comic ditty “Garbage” is, in a way, about aging (“There was a time when garbage was a pleasure/ when you found the sound of good and plenty/ gurgling in your drain”) but it at least has some peripheral tie to the goings-on, and hits the spot in the hands of Christopher Fitzgerald.
Such clowning is what made “Dear World” thrilling to me, as did the dancing – not just an elaborate solo by Jauron at the top of Act II, but the ensemble numbers choreographed by director Josh Rhodes that make the most of the limited space left on the stage. Limited because, in an Encores tradition, the 28-piece orchestra is fully visible on stage. This is the way it should be. It’s what makes Encores distinctive, even when the music they are playing is not.
Dear World is at New York City Center through March 19.