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.”
But the intoxicating strength of the show’s leading lady still pulsates throughout — even when, as is often the case with these concert stagings, Murphy had her book in hand for the dramatic scenes. (She had to miss the first five days of rehearsal after testing positive for Covid.) Before curtain, the Encores! artistic director Lear deBessonet made the announcement, almost anxiously, but it certainly didn’t alter Murphy’s ability to deliver what she always does: an endlessly reinvigorating voice at once worldly, incredulous, curious and confident.
Murphy’s Countess is a dotty, conscientious woman awoken from her comfort and determined to claim it back. If anything, Murphy’s consulting of the script amounted to a more organically astonished character, searching for the best words of affirmation in the face of encroaching danger. She first breaks through that slumber in the frenzied “I Don’t Want to Know,” which Murphy sings with captivating vulnerability.
And Burns nearly steals the second act in her brief solo, “Memory,” a coquettish dream of past flames. She looks dazzling, as does everyone else, in Toni Leslie James’s lovingly fussy, belle epoque-tinged costumes, and Matthew Armentrout’s wigs, the best of which being Murphy’s powder-white hair to match her blanched makeup.
Everyone’s a little loopy in “Dear World” (Aurelia feels the touch of her former beau, Constance hears voices, Gabrielle walks around an imaginary dog), but not as mad as the incoming corporate forces. In Sandy Rustin’s concert adaptation, and under Rhodes’ direction, these aren’t the dust-ridden old biddies for which the original script seems to call for — the three of them look radiantly alive, for starters — but headstrong women who rather mean it when they offer to kill the “hoards of pretentious, power-hungry, self-serving men consumed by greed.”
Considering our current climate of reactive, out-loud politics, the melodramatic straightforwardness of Lawrence and Lee’s story doesn’t seem as far-out as it once did. Now, as then, Herman’s tuneful, yes-we-can score holds a steady beat for all to march to.
Through Sunday at New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
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