DEAR WORLD Remains a Delightfully Wacky and Imperfect Star Vehicle – Review

New York

Donna Murphy in Dear World | Photo: Joan Marcus

Dan Meyer
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March 16, 2023 12:18 PM

There’s trouble a-brewin’ in Paris (literally, riots are happening on the streets). Anyone who is familiar with Dear World—not most people, I recently discovered—knows the same applies to this Jerry Herman musical set in the City of Lights, now playing as part of Encores! At New York City Center. The score is luscious and the lead character (Donna Murphy, iconic as ever) is a delight, but it’s never really worked as a whole.

The issue remains in the non-sensical book. The plot is simple enough: an elderly (and possibly insane) woman tries to save the cafe she loves from being blown up for oil. Yes, in this version of Paris, there’s a fossil fuel gold mine lurking beneath the sewers. To many, Dear World is a confusing melange of climate change alarm with a weird romantic subplot; yet peel back a few layers and you might find what Herman (presumably) originally intended: a farcical look at aging with a sprinkling of hot-button topics, namely pollution and corruption.

When it originally opened in 1969 on Broadway, starring Angela Lansbury (who scored her second Tony for the performance), critics were baffled. It closed having played 132 performances. Since then, few have attempted to stage it, although a 2017 production starring Tyne Daly played across town at the York. This staging doesn’t necessarily argue for a revival, but it does remain a steadfast starring vehicle for anyone who steps into the Countess’ shoes.

Donna Murphy | Photo: Joan Marcus

In fact, Murphy (smartly on book after a COVID-positive test that rendered her unavailable through most of rehearsals) and conductor-music director Mary Mitchell-Campbell, are a perfect pairing in their tackling of Herman’s score.

Countess Aurelia only has time for frivolity, literally opening the show peeping “Through The Bottom Of The Glass” and later driving her point home with “I Don’t Want to Know.” If there’s ever been an argument for living with your head in the sand, the Countess is it, and Murphy is clearly having a blast with the character. Toni Leslie James’ appropriately over-the-top costumes for Murphy—feather boa and wig included—are fabulous.

Also having fun are Andréa Burns and Ann Harada as the Countess’ delirious friends, Constance and Gabrielle; the former hears chatter from inanimate objects and the latter is followed around by an adorable, albeit invisible, pooch named Dickie. In Act 2, Murphy, Burns, and Harada deliver “Tea Party Trio,” probably one of the technically trickiest numbers to be performed on stage I’ve ever heard, and also the weirdest.

Andréa Burns, Donna Murphy, and Ann Harada | Photo: Joan Marcus

It’s a bummer that the rest of the cast is left with little to do. Brooks Ashmanskas, playing the President who wants to blow up the cafe, never really gets to interact with Murphy. His bumbling man-child characterization is hilarious even if it hues a little too close to a twirling mustache villain pastiche. Elsewhere, the always capable Christopher Fitzgerald as the Sewerman gets the most out of songs like "Garbage" and "Have A Little Pity on the Rich." The young adults get the shorter end of the stick, unfortunately, with only Samantha Williams getting a chance to shine in “I’ve Never Said I Love You.”

Still, it’s fun to see the Countess lead a band of misfits trying to save the city. It’s her show, after all, and when Murphy sings “And I Was Beautiful,” it’s a tear-jerker of an 11 o’clock number that feels earned.

While one could argue that not every musical needs to “say something,” Dear World is a little too confusing for a production to not be clear about its intention. And that’s where this Encores! staging falls a little short, with director-choreographer Josh Rhodes adding in too much without a connective thread. For example, why is there a ballet (performed by the talented Kody Jauron) during the Entr’acte that made me think of All Quiet on the Western Front? And yet the musical itself begs, why not?

As for the production design, a gigantic orchestra takes up three-quarters of the stage, so there’s not much to it, as is the Encores! way. Pieces of Paul Tate dePoo III’s set are cutely embedded into the massive 28-member band (delivering Herman’s score with precision), and lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker smartly cues a late scene-change into the sewers of Paris.

Ultimately, Dear World does not add up to the sum of its parts and probably never will—but at the end of it all, I longed for a “tomorrow morning” with these loveable weirdos.

Dear World is running at New York City Center through March 19. For more information, click here

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Dan Meyer

After 4 years in the biz, Dan swapped out theatre for sports and is now a researcher at NBC Olympics. Spectacle remains a key passion and is dedicated to building bridges between different forms of entertainment. He has worked as a writer and editor at Theatrely and Playbill, covering Broadway and beyond. In addition, he has been published in Rolling Stone, Spy, and others.

New York
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