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Composer Jerry Herman has written some of Broadway’s biggest hits, including Hello, Dolly! (a revival starring Bette Midler begins previews in a couple of weeks), Mame and La Cage Aux Folles. But he also has more than a few flops to his credit, including 1969’s Dear World, a musicalization of Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot that eked out a 132-performance run but garnered its star Angela Lansbury a Tony Award. The show hasn’t been given a major New York production since then, which provided the York Theatre Company the perfect opportunity to present it as part of its Musicals in Mufti series.
Begun in 1994, the series presents staged concert performances of largely neglected or forgotten shows. Lacking much in the way of scenery, costumes or props, and featuring performers holding scripts, these are bare-bones affairs that nonetheless have become extremely popular among musical-theater aficionados. This production of Dear World represents one of the York’s starriest to date, with Tony- and Emmy-winner Tyne Daly in the leading role of Countess Aurelia and a supporting cast including such familiar Broadway faces as Alison Fraser (The Secret Garden), Ann Harada (Avenue Q), Stephen Mo Hanan (Cats) and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (A Little Night Music).
The whimsical, fantastical storyline concerns the efforts of the Countess to prevent an evil plot by a quartet of dastardly corporate types to blow up the Parisian café in which she lives in order to get to the oil reservoir located underneath. Assisting her in her efforts are two fellow Madwomen (Frasier, Harada); Julian (Herdlicka), the young man who was initially involved in the murderous scheme before seeing the light, and who is now falling in love with the café’s beautiful waitress ((Erika Henningsen); and the Sewerman (Lenny Wolpe, an invaluable comic presence), who, well, lives in the sewers.
As with so many failed musicals, the problem lies with the book, which is far too slight and precious to be involving. The original by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (Inherit the Wind) was widely derided, and this production uses a new version by David Thompson that at least streamlines the action to a fast-paced two hours, including intermission.
While the score is not one of Herman’s finest, it does display his gift for gorgeous melodies and includes two wonderful numbers in particular — “And I Was Beautiful” and “I Don’t Want to Know” — both sung in tour-de-force fashion by Daly. The actress proved her musical theater chops with her Tony-winning turn in a 1989 revival of Gypsy and a 1995 Encores production of Call Me Madam; here she delivers a deliciously appealing comic performance that single-handedly justifies this incarnation.
Not that the other performers, who had less than a week of rehearsal time, aren’t up to their tasks as well. Frasier and Harada, in particular, earn big, well-deserved laughs for their inventive comic shtick, while Herdlicka makes for a charming and sexy male ingénue.
Considering the circumstances, director Michael Montel gives the musical an extremely polished staging, featuring such clever touches as the Sewerman making his entrance by crawling out from under the piano. And while it’s frustrating to hear the score delivered by only two musicians, pianist Christopher McGoven and bassist Louis Tucci do an excellent job, with the latter doubling on accordion to add suitable Gallic flavor to the arrangements.
“They can’t kill me because I have no desire to die,” declares the Countess at one point. The same could well be said about this show, which despite its problematic aspects deserves to be revisited now and again.
Venue: York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s, New York
Cast: Tyne Daly, Dewey Caddell, J. Bernard Calloway, Ben Cherry, Alison Fraser, Stephen Mo Hanan, Ann Harada, Erika Henningsen, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Peter Land, Gordon Stanley, Kristopher Thompson-Bolden, Lenny Wolpe
Music & lyrics: Jerry Herman
Book: Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee
New version: David Thompson
Director: Michael Montel
Musical director: Christopher McGovern
Set consultant: James Morgan
Lighting designer: Brian Nason
Presented by the York Theater Company
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