Dear World, the not terribly successful 1969 Jerry Herman musical based on Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot (1945), was basically a vehicle for the brilliant Angela Lansbury. It needs a star to pull off its quirky inconsistency and New York City Center Encores! has a gem, Donna Murphy, who, though under-rehearsed due to a Covid scare and carrying her script, gives a colorful and moving performance as its central character, Countess Aurelia.
Dear World is, at heart, like a very long Herman song: schmaltzy, romantic, silly and melodic. The oddball, unbelievable plot of Dear World, which follows the original source closely, deals with the loss of everyday freedoms and environmental issues overlaid with a romance for two young characters thrown in for good measure.
Written by the veteran Broadway team of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (Inherit the Wind, Auntie Mame, Mame), Dear World is set in the working class Chaillot section of Paris during the forties, although the main character Countess Aurelia and her two cronies, Constance (Andréa Burns, acidly charming) and Gabrielle (Ann Harada, ditziness personified) wear outlandish outfits straight out of the Bel Époque (colorful costumes by Toni Leslie James).
Their quotidian steadiness is threatened when the Prospector (Stanley Wayne Mathis, making his evil-doer character charming) discovers that vast oil reserves lie beneath Chaillot and the President of an evil company (Brooks Ashmanskas, giving his absurd character his usual over-the-top energy) decide to have the homey Café Francis, where the community gathers daily, destroyed with a bomb, leaving the two meanies an opening to dig for their oil.
The poor sap ordered to plant the bomb is Julian (a totally engaging Phillip Johnson Richardson) who, unfortunately, falls for the Café’s server, Nina (Samantha Williams, sweet-voiced and lovely) and cannot go through with his nefarious assignment. Their charming relationship is guided by the wise Aurelia who succeeds in uniting the two.
Holding this silly plot together are some of Herman’s loveliest songs: “I Don’t Want to Know,” Aurelia’s anthem; “Through the Bottom of the Glass,” a variation on looking at the world through rose-colored glassed; and “I Was Beautiful,” Aurelia’s sad but lovely memories of her youth and her marriage. The other songs, including the madcap “Tea Party Trio,” forward the plot. The tea party, where Aurelia, Constance and Gabrielle decide to try and condemn the evildoers is every bit as whacky as the Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland.
The lithe and adorable Kody Jauron is a standout as the Artiste whose delightful mime and dance mark him as an up-and-comer. The appealing dances are provided by the choreographer Josh Rhodes who also directed the production.
Christopher Fitzgerald is terrific as the Sewerman who acts as the intelligence officer for Aurelia and her flock, gathering information from his underground perch.
The evocative set by Paul Tate DePoo III features clouds (shades of Magritte!) and piles of tchokes, period detritus and even a movable throne for the President. Amith Chandrashaker provides the lighting, including a gorgeous starry effect that suits the fantastical dreamy plot.
The beautifully arranged score is conducted with sensitivity and grace by Mary-Mitchell Campbell, a beloved veteran of many Broadway musical orchestra pits.
Although Dear World isn’t topnotch Jerry Herman, it still holds interest for theater mavens and Herman diehards.
Dear World (through March 19, 2023)
New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org/Encores
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission