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Interview: Jess LeProtto on the humor and heart of HELLO, DOLLY!

Hello, Dolly!

After performing in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, Jess LeProtto currently stars as Barnaby Tucker in the first national tour of the Tony Award-winning revival. In advance of the tour's four-week engagement at Broadway in Chicago's Oriental Theatre, I spoke with Jess about taking this heart-warming, hilarious Broadway hit on the road.

HELLO, DOLLY! is such an iconic musical and still so popular with audiences today. I'd love to hear your take on why it has such timeless appeal.

This show reaches so many people, all for different reasons; it's just a positive show. It is, in the most positive way, completely unapologetic. The color and the life and the message that it brings, just unite and bring love. Someone like Dolly is the perfect person to put that wonderful responsibility with.

I'm happy because I can definitely tell that the audiences find something in the show. The comedy, the life, the color, the vibrancy, the music, the score... it checks off all the marks of how to really bring an audience together and connect them in the most light-hearted, positive, loveliest of ways.

You were in the Broadway cast and understudied the role of Barnaby. How has it been for you taking on the role full-time now?

It's a dream. I was so blessed to do it in New York. All of us who were involved with it constantly pinched ourselves throughout that whole moment in time with Bette [Midler], and with Donna [Murphy], and then the cast who did it with Bernadette [Peters]. (I left the show when Bette first left the show). Doing it now, it's a gift that's continuing to keep on giving. I'm very fortunate to be doing the show again; it feels like I'm right back home.

It's exciting to play the part [of Barnaby] and have audiences get to see what I can do with it. Definitely, I'm able to show my dancing capabilities and my comedic sensibilities. Our director Jerry Zaks is a genius, he's a living legend, and now I get to work with him first-hand. He's someone who's able to sculpt the character with that actor. He's never recycling things; he's able to find the humor and the life of each character through that particular actor who's playing it, which is the best opportunity for any actor.

You mention how much humor the show has, and there are so many great moments with the foursome of Barnaby, Cornelius, Minnie, and Irene. What's it been like working with your co-stars, Nic Rouleau, Kristen Hahn, and Analisa Leaming?

They call us the Fab Four! We have a great time. The connection was instantaneous when I first met Nic. This style is so particular, and it takes commitment to understand it and know how to control it, and for all of us to feed off each other's energy as well. As Jerry says, when you think about it as a farce, it's a dance. So it's us trying to find the rhythm of how we connect to each other through lines, through physical humor, through all the different things, and it's a back and forth.

Analisa's fantastic, and my darling Kristen is amazing. I love feeding off what she brings to the table; that's what fuels you to react and spark from that. Each show is special; you just have to be present for the moment.

Your career has featured some great dance roles, and Hello, Dolly! has such wonderful choreography. Could you talk about your experience performing it?

I've gotten to understand it from more than one perspective. In New York, because I was a part of the ensemble, I got to do that fantastic choreography that Warren [Carlyle] staged, and was inspired by Gower Champion, with the waiters' gallop, "Hello, Dolly," the polka, and the wonderful stuff that audiences drool over.

At first when I did the show in New York, Barnaby didn't have particular moments to dance individually, as a soloist. Then that changed when they changed the casting in New York to Charlie Stemp, who is a dancer, so they gave him that opportunity. Then they decided, well, we know Jess can dance, so let's keep it the way it is. If it ain't broke, don't fix it! And thank god for Warren and for Sara Edwards, the associate choreographer, who let me find my own stride with Barnaby and try to find a choreography that suits me. It's finding that joy and that exuberant, bouncy, buoyant energy that fuels me. It's amazing. It's pretty surreal.

What's it been like working with Bette Midler, Donna Murphy, and now Betty Buckley as Dolly?

There are no words to describe the feeling to know that you're working with these incredible artists. And not just because they're living legends. We throw that word around a lot, because it's true, of course. But they are so committed. They come from a school of thought and artistry where there is no compromise. There's a sense that they commit to the material in the deepest of ways: through comedy, through passion, through emotion. That is very inspiring to watch, in the sense that you learn as much by observing as by interacting.

With Bette, with Donna, and with Betty, now, there's a great sense of difference in all of them, but for all the right reasons: their own personal reasons as to how they want to portray the character. With Bette, it was a one-woman hootenanny; it was hilarious. With Donna, you got the sense that she was able to reach deeper and find a connection in how she'd interpret the material.

And now with Betty, she's so present. She delivers and interprets the song and the lyric with such great passion. She doesn't anticipate things, she doesn't think one step ahead of the game, or about what she thought in a phrase that she just passed; she's in the moment. The audience gets to see Dolly live each moment, piece by piece, throughout the show. And that's exciting to watch. It keeps you at the edge of the seat because that conviction, creativity, and spontaneity keep the drive for how people appreciate the show. Time and time again, people want to see the show because of who is playing it, and how they're going to interpret it, and how they're going to fall in love with them.

Are there any cities (and you don't have to say Chicago!) that you're especially excited to visit on tour?

I am excited to see Chicago for the reason that I've never been to Chicago. I've heard so much talk about Chicago from actors who I've worked with, who have worked in Chicago, who talk about it over and over again. I can take their word for it, but I need to experience it first! And I know they're right, so I'm happy that I'm going to prove it. I'm excited to get there, I'm excited to see these audiences, I'm excited to get in that theater. It's going to be unbelievable. And we're there for a month, so we get to really sink our teeth into the Chicago atmosphere, which will be pretty exciting.

I'm biased, but of course I think it's a great theater city. I hope we meet your expectations!

No, you're going to exceed my expectations!

See Jess LeProtto in Hello, Dolly! October 23 - November 17 at Broadway in Chicago's Oriental Theatre (24 W. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60601). Tickets are available at broadwayinchicago.com.

Interview by Emily McClanathan



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