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BWW Review: Playhouse Plays MATCHMAKER

Interestingly, Playhouse on the Square has opted to produce Thornton Wilder's THE MATCHMAKER rather than HELLO, DOLLY, the legendary musical that it spawned - and therein lies both the blessing and the curse: There are so many lines here that served as song cues that the specter of Jerry Herman's "ear-candied" score keeps hovering over the play. To add to the dilemma, the ever-arranging "matchmaker" herself is none other than that talented musical performer Ann Sharp (surprisingly making her theatre debut at Playhouse): Because she doesn't have the opportunity to use that particular talent, and because those darned Herman songs keep popping up in the mind, THE MATCHMAKER might prove frustrating for those familiar with its melodic offspring. That's too bad, as Herman's score is rather like some pushy first grader who breaks in line; without it, the audience is left with . . . a fine romantic comedy, filled with mistaken identities and matches and mismatches - and more than just a touch of Wilder's warm , incisive writing.

Does THE MATCHMAKER - those issues aside - merit a revival? Truth to tell, it isn't just the turn-of-the-century setting that makes it seem as nostalgic as a great grandparent's photo album; it has the kind of straightforward narrative structure and development that might seem, to some, dated. Its characters, too, tend "to type." I think it does succeed, though, and in no small part because of its star. Ms. Sharp is always such a charming performer that one might dread incipient coyness; fortunately, she knows how "to turn down the twinkle" and transforms the shrewd and knowing "Dolly Levi" into a real human being (I have fond memories of the late Shirley Booth, pre-"Hazel," in a 1950's version of THE MATCHMAKER - truer to the part, actually, than Carol Channing; it must have been difficult for Hollywood to know what to do with Booth, who just a few years before had won an OSCAR for William Inge's COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA). Nor does it hurt that she is supported by a fine mix of veteran and new performers. As the bedeviled and, ultimately, beguiled "fuss budget" "Horace Vandergelder," Dave Landis is an excellent "match" for Ms. Sharp; it's fun to see these two professionals together for a change (and to see Ms. Sharp on new turf, as it were). As the lads who "put on . . . Sunday clothes" and seek romance in the big city, Evan Mann ("Cornelius") and Benjamin McIlvain ("Barnaby") are delightfully libido-driven; Kim Sanders (who somehow reminded me of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE's Kristen Wiig) is a spirited "Irene Molloy"; and there are fine bits by Michael Gravois (a one-vice at a time Irishman and as unique a "philosophizer" as "Alfred Doolittle" in Shaw's PYGMALION), Jude Knight (good to see her and Ms. Sharp together - yet again - on the same stage), Ann Albrecht Hogan, and Kristen Zimmerly Vandervort, among others.

Ultimately, Wilder's script, a revision of his earlier, disappointing MERCHANT OF YONKERS, proves worthy of taking Herman's score by the shoulders and moving it back in line. While this play is less known and performed than the Pulitzer Prize-winning (if "done to death") OUR TOWN and THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, its gentle, appreciative view of humanity and subtle observation impart a pleasure of their own. (Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed collaborating with Wilder on his suspenseful SHADOW OF A DOUBT, with Joseph Cotton as the "Merry Widow" strangler; Hitchcock was striving for a "Grover's Corners"-like atmosphere, and Wilder was an ideal choice.) In particular, two set pieces stand out - the first, in the millinery shop; the second, in the Harmonia Gardens. Both involve slapstick and are quickly paced. Such scenes, however, are punctuated by characters who, taking their cue from the Stage Manager in OUR TOWN, step out on the apron of the stage and directly address the audience. More than once, I was reminded of OUR TOWN's "Emily," who realizes that people don't take advantage "of every minute": We are reminded of that not only by the individual addresses, but by the very actions of the characters themselves. "Cornelius" and "Barnaby," "Irene," and "Dolly" -- all illustrate Wilder's point that we need to "seize the day."

Director Irene Crist has a clear appreciation of the material, and I would be willing to bet that she thoroughly enjoyed working with this cast. Rebecca Y. Powell's period costumes are colorful and accurate, and Christopher Rhotan's set design, efficiently shifting before lots of lattice, is loose and effective. Through October 11.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)