Wild oats

Dearest Enemy

Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Book by Herbert Fields
Directed by Thomas Mills
Presented by Musicals Tonight!
Mainstage Theatre/14th Street Y
344 East 14th Street (362-5620)
Equity Showcase (call for schedule; closes September 18)
Review by Doug DeVita

One of the late musical satirist Anna Russell's more famous routines was a hilarious deconstruction of the formulaic pretensions of the typical Gilbert and Sullivan opera. It is doubtful that the comedienne was familiar with Dearest Enemy, the first book musical by the song-writing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, but the show could have served as a primer for Russell's 15-minute encapsulization. Written in 1925, when its creators were in their twenties, Dearest Enemy is the musical re-telling of the story of Mrs. Mary Murray (of Murray Hill fame), who in September of 1776 delayed the occupying British army long enough for scattered American forces to reassemble in Washington Heights.

Rodgers & Hart's score for Dearest Enemy is a curious hybrid that conforms to the accepted operetta conventions of its day, while hinting at the more sophisticated, ground-breaking work the duo was to produce in the late '20s and '30s. It's easy to listen to but lacks the consistent melodic invention that became Rodgers's hallmark, and it evidences the influences not only of Gilbert and Sullivan, but of Victor Herbert and Franz Lehar as well. Likewise, Hart's lyrics display a nascent talent that had not yet hit its stride. Herbert Fields's book is a typical scatterbrained affair, with multiple subplots and romances building, deflating, and resolving on cue.

Thomas Mills directed this concert version with an admirably inventive economy, and the whole production had the warmly nostalgic patina of a long ago world when the theatrical universe centered on Broadway. Sets, lighting, and costumes were minimal but effectively delineated period, place, and character, the uncredited costumes especially witty in their evocation of red-coated British soldiers.

Being a concert version, the emphasis was on the voices and on that point unquestionably delivered. Although at times subtlety in performance was sacrificed in favor of superior vocal technique, the gifted cast was a well-mixed ensemble of spirited personalities. Chief among the glories was Rita Harvey as Mary's feisty Irish niece Betsy, whose on-again off-again love affair with a British soldier sparks the plot. Her voice is beautiful and clear, her performance was a model of old-fashioned Broadway fire and grace. As her love interest, William Thomas Evans's polish never betrayed his status as a last-minute replacement. As Mary Murray, Celia Tackaberry showed restraint when she could have gone way over the top without any discernible damage, while Stephen Carter-Hicks was all hammy, plummy voice as the British General Howe.

An enjoyable, rarely seen glimpse at the early work of two of musical theatre's evergreen talents, Dearest Enemy launched Musicals Tonight!'s third season of concert revivals. Boldly stepping on the heels of City Center Encores by focusing on an even-more-esoteric choice of repertory showcased in smartly directed, well-cast productions, this intrepid group is proving to be a formidable force in their own right. And absolutely worthy of the attention that is beginning to be showered upon them.

(Also featuring Amy Barker, Daniel Bogart, Carrie Brewer, Joe Cassidy, Jeff Croteau, Andrew Gitzy, Leslie Kritzer, Julie Price, Nanne Puritz, Alan Scott, and Patrick Tull. Musical Director/Arranger: Mark W. Hartmann. Lighting designed by Lita Riddock.)

Box Score:

Writing: Book: 1 Music: 1 Lyrics: 1
Directing: 2
Musical Direction: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita