BWW Review: 'Still Goin' Strong': MSMT's HELLO, DOLLY! Sparkles with Laughter, Love, and Life
Just as Dolly Gallagher Levi makes a stunning entrance to the unforgettable strains of her signature song, so MSMT's new production of the Jerry Herman classic HELLO, DOLLY! takes command of the Pickard stage with a joie de vivre and heartwarming tenderness and delivers an evening sparkling with laughter, love, and life. In a production directed by Donna Drake, choreographed by Rhonda Miller and performed by an ensemble of true stars, HELLO, DOLLY! offers the audience a magnificently memorable score, daring and dazzling dancing, and a cast of embraceable characters whose story unfailingly tugs at the heartstrings.
Based on Thornton Wilder's play, THE MATCHMAKER, Michael Stewart's book and Jerry Herman's music and lyrics make the musical version a gentle, warm, wise comedy with the grace of a bygone era. Played as it is by the eight-person orchestra under the baton of Music Director Jason Wetzel (Ben McNaboe, Assistant), the music comes alive with a velvety lushness of sound.
Director Donna Drake balances farce with a beguiling sense of genuineness. These characters are real people caught in humorous situations, and they enlist our empathy from the start. Her staging is fast paced with some cinematic moments that are so swift as to seem like shifts in camera angles - (example, the stunning alteration between principals and chorus in "Put on Your Sunday Clothes"), and she handles the challenges of the big panoramic numbers with creativity and some clever theatre tricks. Rhonda Miller's choreography serves up many of the familiar memories and movements of the original Gower Champion dances, at the same time that she layers on this foundation her own brand of complex footwork, tumbling, and elevated balletic overtones. The big numbers do not disappoint, and the "Waiters Gallop" offers some breathtaking thrills.
The set designed by Charles S. Kading evokes the gaslight era in carefully coordinated pastels and soft focus hues, then contrasted with the signature glaring red of Harmonia Gardens.. The painted drops and constructed pieces transition seamlessly from locale to locale, while the catwalk covering part of the pit allows for bringing the dancing and action especially close to the audience. Some very cleverly built large-scale pieces deliver the expected frisson, such as the prancing horse, the moving train, the parade effects (no spoilers). Jesse Klug's lighting serves to blend the two-and-three-dimensional scenic elements and often uses a haze of soft edged memory. Sound Designer Shnanon Slaton beautifully balances the acoustic, with singers and orchestra (despite their being largely covered) nicely blended. Stage Manager Mark Johnson with Amy Bertacini, Assistant and their crew effectively keep this lavish production on track.
Ryan J. Moller's costumes are appropriately lavish, yet retain a human dimension; one can imagine real people wearing these beautiful clothes that are textured and layered in harmonious fabrics and colors - bold reds, burgundys, and blues for Dolly, lavenders for Irene, and mousey neutrals for Cornelius and Barnaby.
HELLO, DOLLY relies on a strong set of principals, and MSMT has assembled these, as well as a talented ensemble. Across the board, there is a perfect sense of comic timing between couples - Dolly and Horace, Cornelius and Barnaby, Irene and Cornelius and so on in all the pairings - this is a comedy that resonates with impeccable style.
In a role coveted and created by so many iconic actresses, Charis Leos proves herself a natural fit. Possessed of a powerhouse voice, a womanly warmth, and extraordinary comedic gifts, hers is a Dolly Levi whose loss and yearning lurk just beneath the surface of her seemingly indomitable armor, making her journey from grief to a new life one that instantly enlists audience empathy. Her performance is filled with so many stirring moments from her impassioned delivery of "Before the Parade Passes By," to her gutsy "Hello, Dolly" to her no-nonsense "Goodbye, Dearie." And then there are the little irresistible character touches that make Dolly so deliciously quirky or the eating scene at Harmonia Gardens that reduces the audience to helpless laughter. In short, Charis Leos' Dolly is a tour de force!
David Girolmo portrays Horace Vandergelder as a confirmed curmudgeon, but also hints at his underlying vulnerability - a man who is trying to navigate the loss of his first wife and whose façade of gruff miserliness disguises his need for love. Girolmo brings a nuanced, self-deprecating humor to the role, as well as an ultimate warmth, all underscored with his rich bass.
The other three romantic couples are cast for visual and dramatic contrast, as well as strong acting, vocal and dance abilities. Lauren Blackman makes an elegant, graceful Irene Malloy. Using both the sweetness of her gleaming soprano as well as the earthier belt register, she creates a nuanced portrait of a woman of determination and class, who has decided to embrace life to the fullest.
As Cornelius Hackl, her naïve suitor, Matt Gibson delivers a performance of disarming charm, credible purity and sweetness, infused with the awkwardness of this country lad. This kind of wholesome innocence is difficult to "play," yet Gibson manages to inhabit the role with a naturalness that melts the heart. Using his clear, lyrical tenor in a lovely unaffected manner, he dominates the stage for the luminous scene in which he recounts his faith in love and sings a soaringly gentle "It Only Takes a Moment." And his deft handling of the comedy - both physical (pretending to be a poor dancer) and verbal - is consistently convincing.
As his younger sidekick, Barnaby Tucker, Michael William Nigro exudes youthful energy, exuberance, and angst, creating an endearing portrayal of a country bumpkin full of the zany pizazz of youth. Having just wowed audiences in the intensely dramatic role of Jim Hawkins, Nigro impressively comes 180 degrees to display the light and shade of his talents - this time a strong comedic bent, limber dance skills, and a powerful vocal presence in the musical numbers. This is an actor with such a kinetic stage presence that he is compellingly eye-catching, and his wired energy here contrasts perfectly to the reflective, introspective lyricism of Gibson.
Dori Waymer gives an amusing account of the ditsy Minnie Faye - high pitched voice and mincing walk, bolstered by strong vocals and dance skills. As Emrmengarde, Vandergelder's niece, and her suitor, the artist Ambrose Kempur, Tara Lynn Steele and Michael Ivan Carrier make an appealing pair - all ardent and immature drama that is, nonetheless, touching. Both are excellent dancers who take center stage in the Harmonia Gardens contest.
In outstanding cameos, Jason E. Simon gives a colorful, Teutonic performance of head waitor Rudolph, while Susan Cella is an hllarious, over-the-top, bawdy Ernestina Money. Glenn Anderson makes a momentarily stern judge, while Jane Abernethy is a chatty Mrs. Rose.
The remaining sixteen members oi the ensemble are all youthful triple threats, who contribute hugely to the production: the ladies - (Lani Corsen (Dance Captain), Alicia Babin, Katie Brnjac, Nicole Fava, Stevie Ann Mack, Victoria Madden, Janayé McAlpine, Liv Nurmi - all are the epitome of elegant period style, while the men - Jonathan Bryant, Diego Cortes, Michael Peter Deeb, Joseph Ryan Harrington, Tyler Campion-Johnson, Michael Olarabigbe, Collins Rush, and Robert Avery Wilson - all demonstrate a wide versatility from tumbling to ballet.
HELLO, DOLLY! is one of those perennial favorites - a feel good, joyful, heartfelt ride through some of the finest material in the canon. But the show offers something more: a message not dimmed by time or dated by social conventions. HELLO, DOLLY! speaks to the joy of being - of seizing life by the horns, taking risks, and reaping its ultimate rewards. And, indeed, there are rewards aplenty to experience in MSMT's new production of this classic.
Near the end of the first act, Irene Malloy, with tears in her eyes, says to Dolly "There are so many wonderful things in the world, Dolly!" Surely, for theatre lovers MSMT is one of those "things," and this production of HELLO, DOLLY! -(following as it does on the heels of the epic, dramatic TREASURE ISLAND) speaks to the many riches this company has to offer to Maine and to the greater landscape of American musical theatre.
Photographs courtesy of MSMT, Roger S.Duncan, photographer
HELLO,DOLLY! runs at MSMT's Pickard Theater from July 17- August 3, 2019 www.msmt.org 207-725-8769