Off Broadway Reviews
Some of the Encores! shows have been so successful, they have gone on to full Broadway runs. Others? Not so much. But still worth seeing for whatever pleasures they might afford, even if only to satisfy "completers," fans eager for the opportunity to catch shows on their wish lists. Which brings us to the current offering, Dear World, the 1969 Broadway show with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, then basking in the glory of having two of his biggest hits (Hello, Dolly! and Mame) simultaneously running on Broadway.
The triple-play phenomenon did not last very long. Dear World, a strange musical indeed, opened in February of 1969 and closed in May, while Hello, Dolly! and Mame would both continue their original Broadway runs until the following year.
In its original incarnation, Dear World was received with rather less than enthusiasm by the critics. Clive Barnes, writing for The New York Times, called it "an evening that seems destined to be forgotten." And there is nothing in the Encores! version to call Barnes' judgment into question. Which is not to say that Dear World is not worth seeing, especially with a cast that includes Donna Murphy in the lead role of Countess Aurelia, an eccentric among eccentrics, portrayed in the short-lived Broadway production by Angela Lansbury and captured in all its oddball glory on an original cast recording.
Dear World, bravely directed and choreographed here by Josh Rhodes, is based on a satiric play, The Madwoman of Chaillot, written by French dramatist Jean Giraudoux. The book for the adaptation was written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Just to be clear, the plot makes almost no sense, something about fighting against the greed of businessmen like those portrayed in the Encores! production by Stanley Wayne Mathis and Brooks Ashmanskas. They play characters known, respectively, as Prospector and President, with a plan to blow up the French café that is home to Countess Aurelia (Murphy, lusciously costumed by Toni Leslie James) in order to get at some valuable oil that allegedly flows beneath it. Essentially, it becomes a battle between the kind-hearted little people and the cruel military-industrial complex.
On the side of the good, in addition to Murphy's character, are her equally eccentric pals Constance (Andréa Burns) and Gabrielle (Ann Harada). For advice, Constance consults her hot water bottle, and Gabrielle confers with her invisible cats and dogs. In addition, the dialog is filled with corny jokes and nonsensical aphorisms. Two examples: "Wet customers are like fish; they don't tip" and "At noon, all men become Roderick. Each hour on the hour all men's names automatically change. Everyone knows that.")
So much for the plot and the dialog. And so much, as well, for most of the score, a real mish-mash of styles and instrumentation (lots of accordion work–all the better to capture the Frenchness of it, I suppose). Act I does end with a rousing call-to-arms led by Countess Aurelia. It's called "One Person," though the tune sounds suspiciously like "Before the Parade Passes By" from Hello, Dolly!. The second act fares somewhat better musically, especially with a couple more songs for the Countess. The wistful "And I Was Beautiful," in particular, is movingly performed by Donna Murphy, and the show's title song, an ode to the world in general, is a spirited ensemble piece, also led by Murphy.
I mention Donna Murphy quite a bit because she pretty much carries the burden of providing the show with its much needed sense of purpose, of the little person standing up against the seemingly all-powerful bullies of the world. Her Countess Aurelia is eccentric, brave and vulnerable all at once, and it is an altogether lovely performance in a show that generally is unable to find its way, caught somewhere between silly fantasy and genuine absurdism, as epitomized by the far more successful Promenade that Encores! Off Center produced a few years back. Two other performances worth noting are Christopher Fitzgerald as Sewerman, a role that allows Fitzgerald to display his comic flair during a scene in which he plays judge, defendant and attorney. Also doing a great job is Kody Jauron as a tenderhearted young man who mimes his entire role, spared from having to recite any of the wackadoodle dialog.
On a final note, I do want to add my own welcome to Encores! new music director, Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Based on this first production under her baton, the orchestra is in fine hands. Let us hope for a long and happy partnership as well as better material to work with, more along the lines of the upcoming The Light in the Piazza.