A matchmaker, dance instructor, legal counsel, and mandolin teacher (among other occupations), Dolly Gallagher Levi is a woman of countless talents and side-hustles in bustling, turn-of-the-century New York City. Undaunted by any challenge, Dolly sets out one last time to find a wife for a grumpy widower in Yonkers in the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly! with lyrics and music by Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart. Arriving with as much pomp and celebration as Dolly herself returning to the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, this U.S. Touring production of Hello, Dolly! (based on the 4-time Tony Award-winning 2017 Broadway revival) playing the Kennedy Center is a delightful and hyper-styled reimagination of a musical theater standard.
Any review of Hello, Dolly! must begin with the namesake woman herself. A role originated by Carol Channing, then expanded by Mary Martin, Barbra Streisand, Pearl Bailey, and Bette Midler, the legends who have embodied Dolly are as bright as the lights of Broadway themselves. And now Tony Award-winning Betty Buckley has rightly added her name to the storied list, with a performance overflowing with personality and spunky gravitas. Unsurprisingly, Buckley’s Dolly was a force of stage presence, comedic timing, and untouchable experience that easily navigated Dolly’s shifting moments of brilliance, wisdom, and vulnerability. From a heart-tuggingly urgent “Before The Parade Passes By” to the emblematic “Hello, Dolly!,” Buckley’s larger-than-life presence was a reflection of Dolly herself, who cannot (and should not) be contained, controlled, or restrained. There are few people who can keep a packed house watching a silent dinner scene in one minute and then tug at their heartstrings with a still relevant plea for empathy, generosity, and kindness in the next, but Buckley is one such talent.
Opposite Dolly in nearly every way was Horace Vandergelder, played by Lewis J. Stadlen. A curmudgeon with little patience for nor appreciation of the strengths of a woman, Stadlen was splendidly bitter throughout the production in his stumbling attempt to find a suitable second wife. A hustler in a different way than Dolly, his audience address “Penny in My Pocket” was the perfect example of how he too broke the fourth wall with the audience to dispatch wisdom, much like a vaudevillian circus master. With an unforgettable nasal New York brass, Stadlen solidified his Vandergelder as a man of few pleasures and many complaints.
Many of Vandergelder’s complaints were aimed at his two tightly controlled employees, Cornelius Hackl (Nic Rouleau) and Barnaby Tucker (Sean Burns). After a fateful decision to shirk their storekeeping responsibilities for an adventure (or “pudding!”) in the big city, both learn in their own way how to take life into their hands and appreciate experiences the world brings their way. Rouleau, in particular, took on the role of ingenue with the show’s most beautiful songs (“Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment”). Sharing a rosy and loving view of the outside world often reserved for a leading female, Rouleau’s lilting tenor voice swelled the heart and widened the smile on my face.
The two ladies widening the smiles on Cornelius and Barnaby’s faces were Minnie Fay (Kristen Hahn) and Irene Molloy (Analisa Leaming). Where Leaming’s Mrs. Molloy fit neatly into the clear-eyed, live-life-to-its-fullest perspective of Cornelius, it was Hahn as Minnie Fay who was the standout for me. Armed with a mousy, easily overwhelmed and impropriety-averse personality, she was not only to the complement to Burns’ cautious flirting, but Hahn found the everyday person underneath Minnie Fay’s comedic character frame. Woven into the panicked looks and stutters was someone I connected with as real in this hyper-realized world of an old-timey musical meets the modern world–a difficult balance to strike that can easily sour if pushed too far or not enough. But that’s where Hahn and this production shine. It knows exactly when to lean back and when to push reality in order to make a larger point about where we’ve been and where we are going.
Leading that charge was the fantastic and fluid direction of Jerry Zaks. Blending the movements of original Director/Choreographer Gower Champion with the crisp lines of current Associate Choreographer Sara Edwards, this Zaks production radiates charisma and good humor. Equally delightful was Scenic and Costume Design by Santo Loquasto that blended caricature with Victorian silhouettes in order to create a colorful world with just as much personality as the characters dancing across it. Lighting Design by Natasha Katz and Sound Design by Scott Lehrer also added to the ceaseless movement and life of this Hello, Dolly! tour.
Much like Horace Vandergelder admits of Dolly, this production was always going to do what it was going to do. A new staging of a musical theater classic filled with tenacity and determination, this production of Hello, Dolly! is indeed a credit to its history, all the Dollys who came before, and is one that only takes a moment to fall in love with.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
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