BWW Review: EPAC Delivers a Classic HELLO, DOLLY!
When you hear that HAMILTON has just been nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards, you forget that prior to THE PRODUCERS' 15 nominations there were other record breakers in the past with only slightly lower numbers. In 1964, Jerry Herman's HELLO, DOLLY! wasn't nominated for, but actually won, a record 10 Tonys, which is by today's standards still one big haul. The re-imagining of Thornton Wilder's THE MATCHMAKER is so beloved by many that it's hard to realize it almost didn't happen. Ethel Merman and Mary Martin both turned down the lead part (Martin was later happy to take the part in London, after the show was a hit), Gower Champion was a last choice as the original director, and the out-of-town tryouts were rocky at best, but legendary producer David Merrick refused to give in. The results are Broadway history, and Louis Armstrong's growl lives in the back of your mind every time you hear the show's name.
Much has been done to the poor show even after its success: a movie that reminds you why films and Broadway musicals usually shouldn't cross-pollinate, and high school production after high school production with students who don't really understand the depths of the major characters and directors who can't tease out the more mature drifts of the show for their casts, crews, and audiences. Thankfully, Edward Fernandez at Ephrata Performing Arts Center has given us a production that reminds you just why you really love this show.
Tricia Corcoran is Dolly Levi in this production, and is a thorough pleasure to see in action. It's rare to see a Dolly Levi of the right age cast; between school productions and casting prejudices (and having a too-young Barbra Streisand as the movie Dolly lodged in everyone's mind), she's usually cast too young, and it doesn't suit the plot or the character. Dolly Gallagher Levi is a world-weary widow with a fine desire to meddle, usually successfully. She's only scraping by, though, from her enterprises, and will gladly settle for a less than perfect second husband. Corcoran gets all of that across, as well as the full range of Dolly's nearly endless odd abilities. With a magical pile of business cards to match, she not only makes matches, but teaches dancing, style, and virtually anything else someone else needs, seemingly effortlessly. She's in her way an older and slightly less magical Mary Poppins, who wants to come home to roost.
The slightly bruised and possibly wormy apple of her eye is Yonkers store owner Horace Vandergelder, one of her matchmaking clients. Brusque, grumpy, and - well, Walter Matthau is not only the film Horace but possibly the archetypal Horace - he's no prize, but he is certainly wealthy (half a million dollars in 1890's money is almost Trump-worthy today), he's not yet dead, and he's available. He's also more suited to Dolly than to the women he thinks he wants, but that's something that takes a while for a stubborn coot to get. That stubborn coot is brought to life here by Bruce Weaver, who's certainly got not just Matthau's look, but also his signature grumpy persona, down perfectly without doing a Matthau impression. Weaver is at his best when Horace is thrown into awkward situations with women, which, in Horace's case, is virtually every interaction with a female. He's at his blissfully most atrocious when he meets with milliner Irene Molloy - a thoroughly delightful Stacia Smith, who's clearly not in the least suited to him or impressed by him. And Smith's "Ribbons Down My Back" is wonderfully rendered, a combination of wistfulness and teasing, even with no one there to be teased.
Horace's store clerk and helper, Cornelius and Barnaby, are the nearly perfect team of Nick Smith and Dylan Caligiuri. It's a surprise to find that Caligiuri is only seventeen. He needs to be on stage much more, and he and Smith must be paired together whenever possible, in as many comedies as can be found, because they are wonderfully synched. Their "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" is as bouncy as it comes, and their foibles at the Harmonia Gardens are marvelously rendered. Cornelius and Barnaby are always well-liked characters, and always amusing, but not always the soul of the comedy in this show; here, they are.
Choreographer Buddy Reeder makes good use of the EPAC stage, particularly in the famous Waiters' Gallop scenes, although one misses the sight of headwaiter Rudolph conducting the waiters. The title song, which everyone seems to know even if they don't realize the show exists, is nicely staged by Reeder and Fernandez. It helps that the set is minimalist; full sets would undoubtedly reduce movement on the stage considerably. But given full costuming and props, the sets themselves are easily stripped down; as noted in many reviews of the film production, there's such a thing as overkill with this show, and it's easy to fall into an excess of Victorian gingerbread, or sometimes poor facsimiles thereof. Here, less indeed is more.
Fernandez has left in a couple of the expositional songs that often seem to be trimmed, such as "Call On Dolly," and it's nice to see them in, and in context. Not all of Herman's songs are flawless in this show, as has often been noted, but unlike many musicals, all of the songs serve a clear purpose. And despite the claims of the critics when the show opened on Broadway, the title song is not the only memorable one; "Before the Parade Passes By" is a small wonder, as is "It Only Takes a Moment." They may be overly sentimental, but they're both beautiful and perfectly in the context of their moments. Corcoran and Nick Smith, incidentally, distinguish themselves in those numbers.
DOLLY is a show that's much like a favorite relative - she's not perfect by a mile but you love her anyway, and you're always happy to see her. What your aunt - or DOLLY - really needs is a chance to shine, preferably with not too much makeup on, and with a few good friends treating her nicely. She's a little older than she used to be, and she needs a little gentle handling. Fernandez, Reeder and the cast have succeeded in that. And the result is a delightful, bubbly production that is everything you love about this show. Audience members raised on the sung-through bombast of the English import era or on rock musicals and HAMILTON may blink at the quaint curiosity of a book musical, but DOLLY is one of the classics of the great decades of traditional American musical theatre, and, as this production reminds us, with good reason.
At EPAC through May 14. If it is possible that you have never seen DOLLY, then you must, just to do it, because it's a basic piece of American entertainment literacy. If you have seen it, it is well worth your time to see it done properly and to wallow in the miracle of proper casting. Visit ephrataperformingartscenter.com for tickets and information.
Photo credit: Vinny Tennis