By Stanford Friedman
The York Theatre’s Musicals in Mufti series, now in its 23rd year, offers up rarely seen musicals in staged concert performances. Having produced over 100 such shows, this year they’ve dug deep into the Broadway burial grounds and unearthed the 1969 Jerry Herman obscurity, Dear World. For fans of the composer, it is a rare chance to appreciate a mid-career work. Having given us Hello, Dolly! in 1964, and Mame in 1966, Herman (along with Mame book authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) was no doubt hoping for a trifecta of memorable, take-charge women whose joie de vivre is tinged with a touch of heartache. But, with a mediocre score and a storyline that devolves into parable, it is easy to understand how Dear World ran for 4 months at the Mark Hellinger and was not seen in New York again, until now.
Based on the 1940’s comedy, The Madwoman of Chaillot, the story revolves around Countess Aurelia (Tyne Daly), basically a Parisian Auntie Mame, with a few pre-existing mental conditions and a café in risk of demolition. For it seems that, underneath Paris, there is a wealth of oil, and an evil cabal consisting of three corporate presidents (J. Bernard Calloway, Peter Land, Stephen Mo Hanan) and their henchman (Gordon Stanley), would be more than happy to decimate the City of Lights to get to all that black gold. The Eiffel Tower is already a derrick, they wryly observe. Perhaps the plotting of a Paris café attack came with slightly less emotional baggage in 1969 than it does today, but the joviality train derails pretty early when the villains arrive with a bomb in a knapsack. In response, Aurelia teams up with fellow madwomen, Constance (Alison Fraser) and Gabrielle (Ann Harada), a sewer dweller (Lenny Wolpe) and – because it’s Paris – a mime (Kristopher Thompson-Bolden) and a pair of young lovers (Erika Henningsen, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka). They metaphysically rid the city of wickedness and the bad guys are condemned.
The limitations of the Mufti series mean that the actors perform with script in hand and only 6 days of rehearsal under their belt. Thus, we must forgive Ms. Daly her French accent that waivers across international borders sounding sometimes like Hermione Gingold and other times like Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Still, there is no other actor as good at displaying wordless despair, and her quiet moments of remembering her old love are touching. She also performs a stirring rendition of Herman’s romantic anthem, “I Don’t Want to Know.” Mesdames Fraser and Harada, with less weight on their shoulders, are allowed to go full-on crazy by director Michael Montel. They would chew up the scenery, were there any. Ms. Fraser is hilarious as the elderly and quite dizzy Constance, while Ms. Harada is harnessed with an invisible small dog named Dickie. Constantly referring to the Dickie in her lap, she is at the mercy of the audience to let the double entendres incessantly fly by. Mr. Wolpe sings a fun, if predictable, ode to garbage, while Ms. Henningsen gets a ballad that comes out of nowhere, and we are all the better for it. Amid much low humor, her lovely voice elevates the entire production.
Dear World – Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, new version by David Thompson, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman; directed by Michael Montel.
WITH: Tyne Daly (Countess Aurelia), Alison Fraser (Constance), Ann Harada (Gabrielle), Lenny Wolpe (The Sewerman), Dewey Caddell (The Sergeant), J. Bernard Calloway (President 2), Ben Cherry (The Waiter), Stephen Mo Hanan (President 3), Erika Henningsen (Nina), Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (Julian), Peter Land (President 1), Gordon Stanley (The Prospector), and Kristopher Thompson-Bolden (The Mute).
Music direction by Christopher McGovern, Scenic consultation, James Morgan; Lighting design, Brian Nason; Production Stage Manager, Kimothy Cruse. At The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue, 866-811-4111, https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/967453. Through March 5. Running Time: 2 hours.