RODGERS Dearest Enemy • David Brophy, cond; Kim Criswell (Mrs. Murray); Annalene Beechey (Betsy); James Cleverton (Sir John); Hal Cazalet (Harry); Rachel Kelly (Jane); Philip O’Reilly (Gen. Tryon); O of Ireland •Read more NEW WORLD 807492 (2 CDs: 100:44 Text and Translation) Live: Dublin 2011
To my mind, composer Richard Rodgers represents the leading edge of the transition from old-world European style operetta to the new-world American style romantic Broadway musical. A student of the more traditional productions of Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg, and Rudolph Friml, among others, Rodgers—along with collaborator Lorenz Hart, and later Oscar Hammerstein II—proved instrumental in dragging Broadway firmly into the 20th century with his string of blockbuster, American-oriented hit shows. Here, with Dearest Enemy, we have a truly transitional piece, Rodgers and Hart’s first Broadway success, from 1925. Gone are the gypsies, the Viennese waltzes, the old world aristocrats (except for a stray British general or two), the disguises and hidden identities of traditional operetta. Retained from the older style are the two sets of lovers, one of them comedic, and the old man buffo role as per Gilbert and Sullivan, and many earlier examples. The story itself is pure American. Taken from the Revolutionary War, it tells the possibly apocryphal tale of Mrs. Robert Murray holding a tea party for the occupying British generals in Manhattan while the American Continental Army is slipping safely away into the night. To this bare bones plot Hart and book writer Herbert Fields have added a comely daughter and a niece of the Murrays, the girls’ young English suitors, and a bevy of other young girls to captivate the dastardly Redcoats and take their minds off going about their soldiering business. Rodgers’s score is likeable and full of good tunes. The stage orchestration has been reconstructed here by Broadway scholar Larry Moore, as much of the original material has gone missing.
It certainly is not a detriment that New World Records has seen fit to export the entire production flintlock, stock, and tea barrel, to the Irish capital of Dublin for this recording, possibly for economic reasons. The Irish National Orchestra plays the reconstructed Rodgers score with elegant sophistication, while providing all the flair of any possible Broadway counterparts. No one in the young, unknown cast sounds particularly Irish except light soprano Annalene Beechey, who is playing the Irish cousin Betsy, the romantic lead. Beechey affects a brogue in the spoken bits which disappears during her fine singing, both alone and in tandem with male lead James Cleverton in their romantic duets. In fact, the entire cast sings very well and would be a welcome addition to any Broadway stage. Two small quibbles: soprano Kim Criswell, who sings the role of Mrs. Murray, often sounds too young to be a generation older than the other girls, and baritone Philip O’Reilly is perhaps a bit stiff in the comedic role of General Tryon. He seems to lack the last ounce of heedless British swagger the role begs for, but this show is a romance first, and the Irish cast delivers that in exemplary fashion. Rodgers and Hart’s hit love songs “Here in My Arms” and “Bye and Bye” are only two of many catchy numbers that decorate the score and make this work a prime candidate for a staged revival.
The only other recording of Dearest Enemy I am aware of, both on video and audio disc, derives from a kinescope of a 1955 made for TV production starring Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling (those of my generation may remember them as the ghostly couple on the TV show Topper). That production changes the libretto and rearranges the order of the songs. Singing and sound quality are better with this new set, as well as providing a more authentic version of the piece. Oh, the true historical story? It is true the British forces under General Howe for some reason did not press pursuit of the retreating Americans until the morning of the following day (September 16, 1776) and did not cut off the retreat of General Putnam from his exposed location at the Battery on the south side of the island. The cocky Brits blew hunting horns as they finally did advance, indicating the fox was on the run. Infuriated by this insult, General Washington and his officers turned the troops and waited on high ground in an area known as Harlem Heights. As the Redcoats advanced, they discovered they had been flanked on both sides by the waiting American army. Washington’s spirited counter-attack provided the professional British Army a stinging defeat in face-to-face combat with the raw American recruits and Washington his first victory as Commanding General. The Continental Army received a priceless boost in morale that was to serve it in good stead through the dark months of the war ahead.
The role of Mrs. Murray’s tea party in all of this is a bit problematic, but this New World recording is a quite charming production of the story. Historically significant as well, this little-known American musical by Broadway icons Rodgers and Hart deserves your attention, and this audio recording of it my hearty recommendation.