BWW Reviews: HELLO, DOLLY! from Studio Tenn

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Make no mistake about it: Nan Gurley and the role of the irascible, confounding Dolly Gallagher Levi were made for each other. Perhaps that's not what Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart had in mind when they created the legendary musical comedy, Hello, Dolly! (after all, they wrote the role - based on a character created originally by Thornton Wilder in his play The Matchmaker - for Ethel Merman, who turned it down, and eventually the title role became synonymous with the inimitable Carol Channing), but it's clear after seeing the Studio Tenn staging of the big, brassy Broadway musical at Belmont's Troutt Theatre that Nan and Dolly are a match made in heaven.

With an imaginative staging and details-oriented direction by Matt Logan, with the superb musical direction of Nathan Burbank and the spirited choreography of Ashley Anderson McCarthy (who does double duty as "Minnie Fay" in the cast - and has never looked lovelier onstage), Studio Tenn's first official season kicks off in high style with this charming production that is as colorful and heartwarming as any we've seen.

Gurley is nothing short of phenomenal as Dolly, playing her with trademark wit and grace and investing her with so much heart that you can't help but fall in love with her. From her first entrance, clad in a beautiful bonze-colored Victorian gown with an impossibly large hat festooned with peacock feathers, Gurley takes complete command of the stage and never lets go, in the process taking the audience on a fanciful journey through turn-of-the-century New York. Her Act One closer - "Before the Parade Passes By" - is particularly moving, at one moment a rousing anthem and at another a powerfully felt song of hope and redemption.

The musical's two biggest ensemble numbers are presented in a wonderfully kaleidoscopic style, filled with color and movement, and performed gloriously by this capable ensemble. Certainly, you would be hard-pressed to find a better version of "Hello, Dolly" (which features a nice moment between Gurley and music director Burbank) and my personal favorite - "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" - is presented with the right blend of theatricality and a genuine joie de vivre that is infectious.

Gurley is paired with Broadway veteran (and Nashville native) Chuck Wagner as Horace Vandergelder, who remains just as bombastic as ever, but the handsome Wagner plays him with a certain matinee idol charm that works well with his leading lady's more heartfelt characterization of the famous matchmaker. The pair's chemistry is palpable and their shared moments onstage are highlights of the grand production that is filled with lovely tableaux and some of the best musical numbers you'll find on any stage, any where at any time.

Of course, that's exactly what audiences should expect from Logan and his producing partner Jake Speck, two talented young men who made good on Broadway and have now returned to their hometown to do what they do best: create good theater. Granted, producing an outstanding musical in Music City USA might be akin to shooting fish in a barrel: In Nashville, we're lousy with talented singers and dancers who can make even the weakest material sound good onstage. But when those actors are given the opportunity to perform a script and a score that are among the best in the pantheon of musical theater hits, you know you're in for a grand evening of entertainment.

Logan's attention to detail is felt throughout the production and his exceptional design (Dolly's eye-poppingly gorgeous gowns are reason enough to revel in the show's design aesthetic) ensures that this Hello, Dolly! appears lush and luxurious (and, if you look closely enough, you can see just how inventive Logan, the designer, is) and his imaginative take on the musical's staging is somehow fresh and inventive despite his obvious affection for the show's lineage. Burbank's expert musical direction provides the necessary technical support for the performers, while McCarthy's choreography showcases them with an effusive confidence that is wonderfully lighthearted.

It's hard to find any weak links among Logan's extraordinarily gifted cast. Gurley and Wagner might be top-billed, but every member of the hard-working cast deliver exemplary performances, particularly Larry Cox Jr. (as Cornelius Hackl), Michael Mindlin (as Barnaby Tucker), Carrie Tillis (as Irene Malloy), the aforementionEd McCarthy, and Maggie McDowell (as Ermengarde). Cox's beautiful voice makes "It Only Takes A Moment" one of the show's highlights, while his interactions with the golden-throated Tillis are sweetly evocative. Mindlin and McCarthy are terrific in their roles and we can't imagine anyone dancing the roles of Barnaby and Minnie Fay better than this talented pair.

Bonnie Keen, one of the most physically daring comic actresses to be found, once again very nearly steals the show as the ridiculously over-the-top Ernestina - and it's delightful to see her onstage with her son, Graham Keen, who gives Ambrose Kemper his due with a completely unfettered portrayal.

While the leading players and the supporting cast are uniformly well-cast, the ensemble more than maintains the production's high levels of professionalism and finesse. Kudos to Vicki White, Derek Whittaker (superb as Rudolph, the maitre d' at the Harmonia Gardens), Scott Baker, Keith Bishop, Billy Ditty, Casey Hebbel, Benjamin Laxton, Millicent Martin, Corrie Miller, Will Sevier and Susannah Smith White.

- Hello, Dolly! Book by Michael Stewart. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Directed and designed by Matt Logan. Music direction by Nathan Burbank. Choreography by Ashley Anderson McCarthy. Presented by Studio Tenn at Belmont University's Troutt Theatre through Sunday, October 24. For details, visit the company website at www.StudioTenn.com.



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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis