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Review: HELLO, DOLLY! at Theatre Memphis

Dolly is a Hit (Technically)

Review: HELLO, DOLLY! at Theatre Memphis

Everything these days seems to be ephemeral. With the attention span of a gnat, Americans lose interest faster than it took to write this sentence. Squirrel! Platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Tinder (swiping for love based on appearances alone) is ever-shortening society's ability to focus and appreciate longevity. With an insatiable appetite for newer and better, the world has embraced change for change's sake. Longevity is, ironically, a thing of the past. That's why it's beyond remarkable that Theatre Memphis is now celebrating its 100th Anniversary Season with the opening of HELLO, DOLLY! (Now through September 19th). 100 years of the Memphis community coming together to put on a show-that's quite a feat! Like a fine wine, Theatre Memphis seems to be just getting better and better with age. Not only have the production values increased immensely over the past few years, but the overall space itself has been infused with millions of dollars in gorgeous renovations. Everything seems to be peaking for TM at just the right time.

When it was announced that HELLO, DOLLY! would be the centennial season's opener after a brutal pandemic, expectations for the event were nothing short of epic. What's more exciting than bringing back audiences after a 16-month lockdown into a multi-million-dollar renovation to see a lavish musical with a full orchestra, grand scenery, elegant costumes, and gravity-defying choreography? This was going to be amazing! Can you tell my expectations were high? Did I overhype this thing? Yes and no. But, hey, it's not my fault! Theatre Memphis has been raising the bar show after show these past few seasons and they set me up! What's the definition of expectations? Pre-planned resentments.

Based on Thornton Wilder's THE MATCHMAKER, HELLO, DOLLY! chronicles the lengths matchmaker Dolly Levi goes to slyly convince a wealthy merchant (Horace Vandergelder) to choose her as his next bride all the while pretending to search for his perfect match. In so many ways, the plot is flimsy and old-fashioned, but that's okay as it allows viewers to instead bask in the glow of its memorable tunes by Jerry Herman ("Before the Parade Passes By," "Put on your Sunday Clothes," "Hello, Dolly!"). Also helping audiences appreciate Herman's score is Jeff Brewer's masterful direction of TM's orchestra. I'm not sure how many musicians are actually sitting in the pit each night, but as a unit, they provide a beautifully rich sound. Overtures have started to disappear from more modern musicals, but thank goodness this band of merry men and women instill nostalgic excitement as they invite you to relish what's still to come.

A close second to Brewer's top notch musical direction is Amie Eoff's costume design. Every performer on that stage looks impeccable. 1890's clothing is not just hanging in people's closets these days, so each piece of clothing has to be built from scratch (with the strength to endure vigorous choreography). The attention to detail and variety of looks is astounding. Eoff might have outdone herself though in such a way that Dolly's 11th hour red "money" gown (coming down the staircase to the title song, "Hello, Dolly!") was surprisingly anticlimactic. Don't get me wrong, it's grand. Just not as grand as all the looks that come before it.

Similarly, Jack Yates' scenic elements continue to impress. He maximizes the space and always makes audiences feel like they're getting their money's worth. However, like Eoff, Yates' grand staircase moment for the descent of Dolly didn't quite live up to the hype. Again, it was nice, just not as dazzling as I had hoped.

Director/Choreographers Travis Bradley and Jordan Nichols are back in action after having proven to be constantly reliable stewards of TM's big budget musicals. From the look of most of their productions, an enormous amount of time is usually spent on choreography and that time has paid off once more with this ensemble. They are all wonderful dancers and elevate the show beyond most community theatres in America. They leap, spin, hop (some even on point) effortlessly and always make you forget they're local volunteers.

Review: HELLO, DOLLY! at Theatre Memphis
Debbie Litch as Dolly Levi

One actress has become synomynous with Dolly Levi and that's, of course, the incomparable Carol Channing, who, like Theatre Memphis, emerged into the world 100 years ago. While other well-known actresses embodied the role (Pearl Bailey, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler), Ms. Channing played the role first, the longest and the best. Her voice was unusual, her facial expressions were enormous, and her comedic timing was flawless. The role is a lot harder to play than it might look on the surface. Ms. Levi is a character that can make things happen-a mover and shaker. She is strong-willed and can sell ice to an Eskimo. Finding a local actress who can sing, dance, and act the part with the charisma and comedic timing necessary to carry this huge show is a big ask. Ironically, another woman known to Theatre Memphis as an outgoing force of nature with a big personality who can sing and knows how to sell anything and everything is its very own Executive Producer, Debbie Litch. To be clear, Debbie Litch is a real-life, modern-day Dolly Levi. It's in her DNA. Learning she would be starring in HELLO, DOLLY! made perfect sense. Until it didn't. Perhaps Ms. Litch didn't trust herself enough to realize just how closely she already resembled the character she was inhabiting. There was really no need for "acting" here. Dolly is a big, brassy character. Debbie is a big, brassy character. Instead, Ms. Litch seemed to pull back and diminish her natural personality in such a way as to alter the rhythm (thus comedic timing) of the role. The longer the show went on, the more Ms. Litch seemed to lose her way. Ironically, it wasn't until the curtain call had finished that Ms. Litch broke "character" and announced to the audience that Theatre Memphis' fundraising efforts were still in effect and urged people to keep those donations coming in. Debbie was never more like Dolly in that moment! There she was! Oh, how we missed you.

Review: HELLO, DOLLY! at Theatre Memphis
Barclay Roberts as Horace Vandergelder

Another miss of the night was Barclay Roberts as wealthy widower Horace Vandergelder. Roberts has an easy-going natural style about him and successfully plays more realistic characters, but Horace Vandergelder is a "character" in every sense of the word and this opportunity was lost on Roberts. His choices didn't heighten the comedy or drive the proper tone of the show in any way. He could have done so much more to make the character quirky and charming.

In a nearly three-way tie for yelling the loudest and fastest was Justin Allen Tate as Cornelius Hackl (naïve employee of Mr. Vandergelder), Tyler McGee as Barnaby Tucker (2nd naïve employee of Mr. Vandergelder) and Erica Peninger as Minnie Fay (Milliner Irene Malloy's assistant). Their approaches to these characters were all one dimensional and full of missed opportunities. There is more to comedy than screaming and flailing about the stage and, such tactics (if employed at all), should be used sparingly. Mr. Tate wins (loses) by a decibel.

Review: HELLO, DOLLY! at Theatre Memphis
Tyler McGee as Barnaby Tucker, Erica Peninger as Minnie Fay, Justin Allen Tate as Cornelius Hackl and Emily Z. Pettet as Irene Molloy

Only Emily Z. Pettet as Irene Molloy and Vandergelder's potential match understands the style of acting this type of show requires. She's a fully-realized character with 1890's believability and class. She knows when to play it up for the comedy, but also how and when to reel it in. She has a beautiful singing voice and shines in her classic rendition of "Ribbons Down My Back." All others onstage should take note.

So many things about HELLO, DOLLY! work well. The orchestra, costumes, set and choreography are delightful. Audiences should still walk away happy to have experienced this long overdue return to live theatre. While there are parts that were near misses, Theatre Memphis still offers some of the best shows in town. Here's a toast to 100 years more!

From This Author - Kevin Shaw

Kevin grew up performing in the Birmingham, AL community theatre circuit since 1974. After moving to Los Angeles and appearing in a number of theatrical, TV and Film projects, he transitioned to di... (read more about this author)

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