REVIEWS: Dearest Enemy

Dearest Enemy Review September 7th, 1999
Reviewed by Martin Denton

The same week that Dearest Enemy opened on Broadway (in mid-September, 1925), the Lunts opened in Shaw’s Arms and the Man, George Jessel opened in The Jazz Singer, Noel Coward opened in his play The Vortex, and Katherine Cornell opened in The Green Hat. Another hit musical premiered just two days before Dearest Enemy: No, No Nanette, which gave the world "Tea For Two" and "I Want to Be Happy." Those were the days, alright.

Which is why Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight deserves huzzahs: Mel brings back a little bit of the long-gone golden age of American theatre every time he produces one of these staged concert renditions of "lost" musicals. Dearest Enemy wasn’t the most popular show of its season (or even its week!); nor was it the best of the frothy '20s musicals turned out with astonishing regularity by the young Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Herbert Fields (that honor belongs to A Connecticut Yankee, probably, or The Girl Friend). But as historical artifact, Dearest Enemy is enormously valuable, showing us up-close what kind of musical comedies were flourishing in those heady days of Lunt & Fontanne, Noel Coward and all the rest.

It’s also fascinating to witness this, the very first Rogers & Hart musical comedy, just to see where this talented pair was back in 1925, particularly since we know what heights they are headed for: the blissful silliness of The Boys from Syracuse and the dazzlingly artistry of On Your Toes can all be glimpsed in Dearest Enemy. And finally– -- and not at all incidentally -- this is a delightful show, filled with Hart’s trademark wit and Rodger’s trademark melody, modestly if not-so-neatly packaged in a very old-fashioned, creaky libretto that nevertheless has charm and the occasionally potent gag. The songs include "Here in My Arms" and "Bye and Bye," two airy love songs that are vintage Rodgers & Hart; Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque chorales like "Cheerio" and "Full Blown Roses"; and several punchy comedy numbers (such as "Here the Hudson River Flows," which gets mileage out of the show’s setting, which is New York City in 1776, making jokes about the forests of Manhattan and the wilds of the Bronx).

I haven’t yet told you the story: it’s a wildly improbable account of what almost certainly didn’t happen when the patriotic Mrs. John Murray detained a group of British soldiers during the Revolutionary War, under instructions from General Washington himself (he wanted to give some of his regiments a chance to reconnoiter without risking British attack). Messrs. Hart, Rodgers, and Fields have fancifully provided Mrs. Murray with a houseful of beautiful young ladies who are eager to engage the visiting British troops in more than just conversation, and a soubrette daughter (think Ado Annie in Oklahoma!) who instantly falls for the son of one of the British generals. "Hooray, we’re going to be compromised!," they sing; naturally, they have very little trouble persuading the enemy army, which is of course composed entirely of handsome young men (save the two portly generals at the helm), to forget the war for a day and to instead eat, dance, and flirt at the Murray mansion.

I haven’t mentioned Mrs. Murray’s spunky Irish niece Betsy (think Peg o’My Heart, but with a singing voice): she enters clad only in a barrel, which has been thrown to her by British Captain John Copeland after a dog runs off with her clothes while she is bathing in Kipp’s Bay. She hates the British (she’s’ Irish, remember, and a rabid American patriot), but she and John of course fall in love. Will true love conquer the enmity of war? Certainly it will, but not before two hours of complications and interruptions gives us our show.

If I’ve made Dearest Enemy sound a bit dopey, well, it is; but it’s nevertheless sweet and good-natured and plenty of fun. This is the kind of show where the lead comedienne (Mrs. Murray’s daughter) can suddenly announce "That reminds me of Peter Stuyvesant!" and burst, entirely without motivation, into her big second act specialty. (Sweet Peter," which apparently was the comic highlight of the original production, all about how Stuyvesant couldn’t cheat on his wife because of his peg leg making so much noise.)

Musicals Tonight does not offer full productions: the actors are still "on book," which is to say that they read from scripts throughout the show. There’s limited choreography and just a fragment of a set. The company performs with somewhat less verve than we’ve come to expect from previous Musicals Tonight productions, but Rita Harvey, as Betsy, sings beautifully, and Jeff Croteau (as Mrs. Murray’s nephew) and Joe Cassidy (as young Tyron) have some memorable moments as well. The main attraction is the score, well-served by musical director Mark Hartman at the piano and by ensemble with superb diction, enabling us to catch every remarkable, brain-twisting rhyme devised by the incomparable Lorenz Hart.

So is Dearest Enemy a museum piece? Perhaps, but remember: Museums can be very entertaining as well as enlightening. That’s exactly the sort of experience you’ll have at Dearest Enemy: a veritable treat for lovers of musical comedy, young and old.

Rodgers-Hart Say Love Thine Enemy
Newsday Theatre Review September 9th, 1999
R eviewed by Aileen Jacobson

Improbably, the musical 1776 made the signing of the Declaration of Independence a thrilling, even suspenseful, theatrical event. Few will remember that back in 1925, the youthful, barely known team of Richard Rodgers , Lorenz Hart and Herbert Fields also created a musical set during the Revolutionary War. Theirs was a giddy operetta, filled with the yearnings of young women and romantic desires of dashing soldiers. Based on a true incident involving a heroic deed by Mary Murray of Murray Hill, Dearest Enemy was the first book musical by the now-legendary Rodgers and Hart duo, and a Broadway success. Though rarely revived, it’s been on television (in 1959, with Anne Jeffreys, Robert Sterling and Cornelia Otis Skinner) and at the Goodspeed Opera House in 1976.

And now it’s being given a loving concert by Musicals Tonight, whose producer, Mel Miller, specializes in resurrecting obscure entertainments on a bare-bones budget. Last season, he presented a delightful By the Beautiful Sea, starring KT Sullivan. This time, there’s no name recognition in the cast, but plenty of talent. And, hey, as the New York Telegram predicted 74 years ago, that composer Rodgers "will go far."

The play was sparked by a plaque that Hart came upon at Lexington Avenue and 32nd Street telling how Mrs. Murray aided the rebel cause by detaining British officers at her home with "pleasant conversations and a profusion of cake and wine" long enough for a division of 4,000 Revolutionary soldiers to "leave the city and escape to the heights of Harlem."

At the center of the story is the troubled romance between Mrs. Murray’s feisty Irish niece, Betsy Burke, and the British Capt. Sir John Copeland. Enemies in war, they’re also in love. Harvey makes a vivacious Betsy, matched in intensity by the mellifluous William Thomas Evans. They have the best love songs, the haunting "Here In My Arms" and pretty "Bye and Bye." Betsy also gets to defend the female stake in war, when her sweetheart tries to tell her it’s only "men’s business."

Another Whig-Tory romance blossoms between Mrs. Murray’s flirty daughter, Jane (Nanne Puritz), and British General Tyron’s son (Joe Cassidy). They also make an appealing , strong-voiced couple. Meanwhile, the formidable Mrs. Murray, delectably played by Celia Tackaberry, keeps the lusty older soldiers amused with her "full blown rose" allures and her easy way with several Gilbert and Sullivan-like patter songs. She delivers some of Hart’s more twinkly lines: "The creation of a nation comes of steady application."

The musical, gracefully staged by director Thomas Mills, has fun with quaint coyness about sex and nostalgic ribbing about the "forests of Manhattan," back when Murray Hill was considered "the country." There’s a joke about the naming of a drink, and a fine ensemble of "girls" who deserve special mention: Amy Barker, Carrie Brewer, Leslie Kritzer and Julie Price do musical justice to the score, nicely arranged and played by Mark W. Hartman. It’s fun to see such promising performers, at least some of whom "will go far."

Wild Oats Dearest Enemy
Off-Off Broadway September, 1999
Reviewed 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’ 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’ 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’ 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, plumy 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.

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