An effervescent all-star ensemble of fourteen actors and two musicians under the ebullient direction of Abigail Adams brings to life the eccentric characters, madcap situations, and old-fashioned values of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker of 1954, in a high-spirited eye-catching production at People’s Light. Set in the melting-pot cities of Yonkers and New York in the 1880s, the zany farce, which provided the inspiration for the 1964 smash-hit Broadway musical Hello Dolly!, offers quaint but ever-relevant advice about foolishness, vice, and money, while celebrating the importance of adventure, generosity, and finding the perfect match in life.
Wilder’s preposterously convoluted plot revolves around the aptly-named wealthy merchant Horace Vandergelder (geld means money in Dutch), a widower who enlists the services of marriage-broker Dolly Gallagher Levi, herself a widow, to find a new wife for him. Chaos ensues when she decides she wants the tight-fisted crotchety “half-millionaire” for herself, and, as a result, comes to interfere in the relationships of Horace’s niece, his shop employees, and the widowed milliner he had intended to marry, should Mrs. Levi’s matchmaking efforts on his behalf fail. When all of the kooky characters wind up at the same time in the same places in NYC, they delight us with their secret assignations and silly slapstick scenes, risible disguises and mistaken identities.
Graham Smith as Vandergelder and Kathryn Petersen as the eponymous matchmaker lead an excellent and diverse ensemble (reflecting America’s heterogeneous immigrant population of the late 19th-century) in capturing the over-the-top characters, their side-splitting antics and idiosyncratic personalities, and their pronouncements on ethics and observations of society (“Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion”), delivered in direct address to the audience. Among the most hilarious supporting performances are those of Teri Lamm as the milliner Mrs. Malloy, who is abstemious until she isn’t; Tabitha Allen as her shop assistant Minnie Fay, who is timorous until she isn’t; and Pete Pryor as the whiskey-loving Malachi Stack, who ‘helps’ Smith off with his coat in an uproarious scene of physical comedy (with choreography by Samantha Reading), and delivers a riotous monologue on the virtue of enjoying just one vice at a time (he chooses drinking over stealing).
Brandon Meeks and Christopher R. Brown make a terrific team as the hard-working low-paid underlings Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, who abandon their shifts at Vandergelder’s store for an adventure in New York. Their need to have fun is palpable, their reactions are priceless, and their scenes at Mrs. Malloy’s (where they hide in a closet and underneath a table to avoid being seen by their boss), and at an upscale restaurant (where they don women’s clothing to escape detection), are among the highlights of the show. And James Ijames as the artist Ambrose Kemper, determined to marry Horace’s niece, holds his own against the protests of her uncle, then gives him a taste of his own medicine with a less-than-conciliatory handshake.
While some of the exaggerated ethnic, class-and gender-based stereotypes are outdated and offensive today (the drunken Irishman; the privileged girl who whines and ‘ugly-cries’ when she doesn’t get her way; the titular meddlesome woman who lies, schemes, and manipulates so she can get her way and marry a rich husband), they speak volumes about the socio-cultural attitudes of the times and the limited options for women. So much for traditional American values. But in the end, Dolly succeeds in her pairings, resolves to be charitable with Horace’s wealth (“Money . . . is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about, encouraging young things to grow”), and brings happiness to all. Now that’s a mission everyone should undertake.
A stunning set by Tony Straiges encompasses the different locales in Yonkers and NYC, and evokes the era with striking 19th-century graphic motifs printed on expansive white walls, some of which reappear on-stage as three-dimensional props. Costume Designer Marla J. Jurglanis provides colorful period-style garb for the characters, and Dennis Parichy contributes his consistently beautiful lighting. All of the play’s action is enhanced by exuberant passages of live music and Foley sound effects by Composer, Music Director, and Sound Designer Liz Filios, accompanied by musician Melanie Hsu.
The Matchmaker at People’s Light offers a full two-and-a-half hours of laughs and lessons that seem to fly by, with a cast that obviously enjoys performing the show as much as you will watching it. Go early, if you can, for the half-hour musical pre-show, with the multi-talented cast singing and playing songs from a variety of American-immigrant cultures. You are even invited to sing along if you know the words, as I did to “The Sidewalks of New York” – a well-chosen number about life in the City in the 1890s, by Charles B. Lawlor (music) and James W. Blake (lyrics). It’s all a lot of fun!
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission, plus a 30-minute musical pre-show.