March 20, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
The plea for a “dear world to get well soon” only took fifty-four years and it may have been worth the wait. In its all-too brief Encores! run over the past week, this underperformed Jerry Herman star-vehicle is a reminder that even a less-than-prime example of the Golden Age of the American Musical can still shimmer and shine. And if this type of “big lady” vehicle is no longer the leading genre it once was, surely as Herman pleads in the title song “we want you dancing tomorrow afternoon,” the lush power these kinds of shows can deliver have been AWOL for years.
For those who’ve only heard its score, courtesy of an excellent original cast recording (shout out to its producer, Thomas Z. Shepard), the question remains, as always: Is Dear World any good? The answer is no; it never was very good, and it never will be. Its book is downright terrible and this newest iteration by playwright Sandy Rustin does little to improve it. But for the few thousand Jerry Herman devotees (like me) who made it their business to see it this past week, all are grateful for the opportunity to be wrapped in the arms of its score in a giant theatre with an immense orchestra. On top of that, it stars an incandescent Donna Murphy in a role that won Angela Lansbury the second of her five competitive Tony Awards (Ms. Murphy has two herself). If this production doesn't exactly pave the way for the show’s resurrection, it entertains gloriously, which is no small thing. Here's a small sampling provided by City Center:
In a column last week, I wrote extensively on Dear World’s troubled 1969 production and the efforts to resuscitate and revive it that have gone on for decades, none of them to any success. The reason for that is it's too weak a tea to brew for modern times. The issues it raises on the need to preserve the environment and stand up to unbridled avarice are more important than ever, but the frothiness of its conception and execution prevent it from being taken seriously. The situations in real life have become far too grim to toss off the way the characters' respond to them, primarily in the powers-that-be, who are portrayed here as cartoons. Even though it’s a musical comedy, the stakes are set high, so you still need real challenges at hand. Part of this can be laid at the buffoonery in Brooks Ashmanskas’s broad characterization, a character called “The President,” who is seemingly acting in a different play than the others—and that's including three self-described madwomen on stage.
But it’s the music that ultimately made for a worthwhile evening, especially with examples set by such fine musicians and singers. Under the guidance of Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the 26-piece orchestra sounded as full and rich as possible. The company of twenty-four is led by Donna Murphy, who sings the role of Countess Aurelia with astonishing clarity, promoting a feeling of being in good hands, which is major comfort. She has the skill to make some unplayable lines playable, as do Andréa Burns and Ann Harada, as her fellow partners in crime. It's comedic mayhem when they come together in Act Two for a rousing trio with an encore as welcome as it is shameless.
I wish I could report that the show kicked off better, but as Dear World has always been in search of an opening number, it's not all that surprising. It’s original opener, “The Spring of Next Year,” is relegated to starting the second act while “A Sensible Woman,” Aurelia’s “I Want” song from a 2000 production, isn’t used at all. Here we have “Through the Bottom of the Glass” woefully missing the mark. Then the show’s second song, “Just a Little Bit More,” is another cut number (this one for the President and his cronies) and is sadly lackluster. Those in attendance owing to the joys of its original cast album had to be kept waiting beyond its overture. It’s almost twenty minutes before getting the taste of nostalgia supplied by "I Don’t Want to Know.” Once setting the tone, nothing but thunderous ovations followed every time Murphy stepped up to the plate, home run after home run. And mention must be made too of Samantha Williams’ “I’ve Never Said I Love You” clearly an audience favorite. She and Philip Johnson Richardson (playing her love interest) are saddled with poorly written parts, though manage to rise above it with their splendid singing. And it is a pleasure seeing the perpetually delightful Christopher Fitzgerald, an Encores! veteran who goes back to 1999’s Babes in Arms and was most recently seen in the revival of Company last season.
A paragraph all its own needs to go to the aforementioned Andréa Burns and Ann Harada. Though their combined stage time didn’t total much, they made every minute count. In the comedy and the singing, they not only rose to the occasion, but surpassed it. As a pair, they easily share the prize for most valuable features players.
Director Josh Rhodes, who did exemplary work on previous Encores! productions of Grand Hotel and Mack & Mabel, repeats here, reveling in his obvious admiration of Herman’s musicality. In spite of the mistake of allowing for the broadness of the President and his crew, Rhodes doesn’t embroider the rest much and keeps the pace moving even at a 2 ½ hour length (including intermission). He also offers subtle choreography, though perhaps more out of necessity, as the spreading out of the orchestra leaves little room on the mammoth City Center stage to do a whole lot.
For Broadway aficionados who have been waiting too long to revisit a lesser known Jerry Herman score and feast in the orchestrations of the great Philip J. Lang (a frequent Herman collaborator), this was heaven on earth. Here’s hoping an audio recording be produced, as a number of Encores! already have. In so many ways, Dear World defines the original Encores! mission statement from close to thirty years ago of performing musicals that, for varying reasons, never got a chance for a second look. To that end, perhaps they should take on Jerry Herman's The Grand Tour some time soon, featuring another neglected and charming work from this first-rate composer/lyricist.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button above and feel free to comment below or write me at Ron@ronfassler.org.