By Brian Scott Lipton . . . 

Having triumphed with Hello, Dolly and Mame, the late Jerry Herman may have reasonably expected another triumph with 1969’s Dear World, his musical adaptation of Jean Giradoux’s Gallic satire The Madwoman of Chaillot which centers around another strong woman: the strong-willed Countess Aurelia, who takes it upon herself to stop some unscrupulous businessmen from destroying Paris in order to get the oil beneath the streets.

Back then, however, history did not fully repeat itself. Its star, Angela Lansbury, won her second Tony Award (as she has had for Mame, and Carol Channing had for Dolly), but the show was not deemed to be successful, and it ran for a mere four months on Broadway. Now, in its own way, history again repeats itself with the show’s long-awaited staging at City Center Encores. If there were Tonys for concert stagings like this one, Donna Murphy would absolutely earn one, turning in a performance for the ages as Aurelia. 

But try as he might, director and choreographer Josh Rhodes cannot successfully marry the rather twee yet over padded script (by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and adapted here by Sandy Rustin) with the rather large-scale production and host of anthemic Herman numbers. (This production, it should be noted, contains three songs not listed in the 1969 production, and others have been moved as well as given to other characters.) Less would definitely have been more here in almost every way. 

In part, that’s because there’s not enough plot to keep the engine moving for nearly two and a half hours. Moreover, Rhodes never really finds a consistent tone to the offbeat script, which varies from the deeply sentimental to the downright weird. For example, a “tea party” sequence in the second act with Aurelia conspiring with fellow “madwomen” Constance (a brilliant Andrea Burns) and the almost child-like Gabriele (a delicious Ann Harada) comes off, unintentionally, as a Golden Girls episode on acid as the women talk to hot water bottles, imaginary dogs and the “universe.”

Moreover, the stage often seems unbearably crowded, sometimes filled with 20 cast members and a 28-piece orchestra under the direction of the gifted Mary-Mitchell Campbell. (The minimal scenery is by Paul Tate DePoo II; the excellent costumes are by Toni-Leslie James.) You often worry if someone is going to fall into the audience.

Nevertheless, the show provides a spectacular vehicle for the peerless Murphy (who is recovering from Covid she contracted two weeks ago, causing her to miss five days of rehearsal and, subsequently, keeping her on book for some scripted scenes). She mines such first-rate songs as “I Don’t Want to Know,” “And I Was Beautiful” and “Kiss Her Now” for every ounce of their drama and pathos and invests Aurelia with a loveable eccentricity that makes us root for her every second! She deserved every “Brava” she received at the curtain call.

Unfortunately, unlike Herman’s more successful shows, there aren’t other characters to really care about than Aurelia. Lovers-at-first-sight Julian (a fine Phillip Johnson Richardson) and Nina (an excellent Samantha Williams, who receives a well-earned ovation for “I’ve Never Said I Love You”) are thinly sketched; and since they have no real opposition to their union, their story doesn’t provide a satisfactory subplot.

The show’s villain, “The President” is basically a cardboard figure (made no more three-dimensional by the complete campiness of Brooks Ashmankas). Aurelia’s confidante, the Sewerman (played with customary verve by Christopher Fitzgerald) is a symbol of the underclass, nothing more. And one suspects the character now known as “The Artiste” (superbly danced by Kody Jauron) might actually be interesting if he was able to speak.

As always, one is incredibly grateful to Encores! for the chance to witness such a rarely revived show. It didn’t change the world in 1969. And while its message is timelier than ever in 2023—as we fight climate change and corporate greed—“Dear World” won’t do so today.

Dear World. Through April 19 at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues) 

Photos: Joan Marcus