Review | Donna Murphy leads the quirky mess of ‘Dear World’ at City Center Encores!

Encores!Dear World
Encores! “Dear World”
Photo by Joan Marcus

During the first quarter century of its existence, City Center Encores! did not present any musicals by Jerry Herman, which seemed particularly odd given that Herman had written four rarely-produced musicals (Milk and Honey, Mack and Mabel, Dear World, and The Grand Tour) that would all seem to be obvious candidates for the Encores! treatment – and I am sure that few people would complain if Mame or La Cage aux Folles were to eventually receive Encores! productions. (For years, rumors suggested that Herman did not want Encores! to do Mack and Mabel because he believed that it deserved a Broadway revival instead.) Encores! finally presented a lively production of Mack and Mabel in 2020, right after Herman’s passing at the age of 88, and immediately prior to the start of the pandemic.

The most recent season at Encores!, which marked the first season under new artistic director Lear DeBessonet, was, to say the least, a mixed bag. The productions of “The Tap Dance Kid” and “The Life” were rough in quality and marked by many questionable revisions (which goes against the original Encores! mantra of doing a musical in its original form), while Into the Woods (directed by DeBessonet) was a universally-acclaimed, sold-out triumph that quickly transferred to Broadway and is now on a national tour.

The new Encores! season kicked off on Wednesday with another Jerry Herman musical, “Dear World,” a 1969 musical adaptation of “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” Jean Giraudoux’s quirky 1943 French-language fable about a group of artsy outsiders who plot to save Paris from being ravaged through oil drilling and, by extension, save humanity from ravenous corporate greed. (I had a small role in a production of the play in high school. Virtually no one among the cast, crew, or audience appreciated it at the time.)

In the midst of DeBessot’s shakeup of Encores! (which promises more productions that are built on an original directorial vision, offbeat casting, and/or fostering a sense of local community), “Dear World” makes for a traditional Encores! selection: an overlooked musical that has considerable book problems, some worthwhile songs, great character roles, and that is not commercially revivable today. That being said, the production (directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes) represents an amalgam of different versions of the show (which underwent post-Broadway revisions), even though it maintains the large cast and orchestra sizes of the original production.

For many, “Dear World” may be simply a star vehicle for Donna Murphy, who plays Countess Aurelia, the “madwoman” of the title, which was originally played by Angela Lansbury as her follow-up to “Mame.” Wearing a wig and ghoulish white makeup, Murphy gives an outsized and outlandish comic performance that is marked by moments of vulnerability and big singing, as seen in her renditions of the solos “I Don’t Want to Know,” “And I Was Beautiful,” and “Kiss Her Now.” (A musical monologue of hers that begins the show, “Through the Bottom of the Glass,” is interminable.) Murphy is certainly one of my favorite musical theater performers and the opportunity to have her lead Dear World more than justifies producing the show. (For the record, I preferred Murphy’s rambunctious performance as Dolly Gallagher Levi in the recent Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! over both Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters.)

Murphy is joined by a game supporting cast full of character actors including Brooks Ashmanskas (as the flamboyant lead villain), Ann Harada (as one of the countess’s friends, who happens to have an invisible pet dog), and Christopher Fitzgerald (as a knowledgeable sewer man who can also perform a criminal trial as a one-man show), plus Eddie Korbich and Andrea Burns. Phillip Johnson Richardson and Samantha Williams are nicely paired as the young and innocent lovers in the midst of the craziness.

Interestingly, Herman’s original vision for “Dear World” was of a small chamber piece, rather than the kind of musical theater extravaganza represented by his 1960s mega-hits “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame,” and a few recent productions of “Dear World” have been presented in that manner, including one at Off-Broadway’s York Theatre in 2017. However, a downsized “Dear World,” without the sweeping vocal arrangements and orchestrations, is far less thrilling. It is probably too late to seriously resuscitate “Dear World.” Frankly, I would rather have Encores! present the show for a week with Donna Murphy, after which I can revisit the original cast album once every few years.

“Dear World” runs at City Center through Sunday. nycitycenter.org.