BWW Review: A Jubilant HELLO DOLLY! at Shea's Buffalo Theatre
Many may think that the heartwarming and brassy American musical comedy of yore with it's hummable tunes will never be seen again. That the days of star driven shows have dried up. The era when the names of Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, or Carol Channing all but guaranteed a hit musical. Now producers are wary of putting all of their eggs in one basket, relying on a star to stick with a show until it recoups it's investment. Happily...... no, joyously...... Broadway producer Scott Rudin was able to engage superstar Bette Midler for a year in the first revival of HELLO DOLLY! ever to happen on Broadway without Carol Channing. The results were nothing short of spectacular and that same glorious production was sent on tour two years ago with another Broadway diva, Betty Buckley. With her year complete, Rudin has hired an actress with enough Broadway credits and talent to help this production to continue to soar...And while Carolee Carmello may not be a household name, she surely is a musical comedy star fully capable of being a great Dolly.
The score of the hit 1964 musical HELLO DOLLY! was written by Jerry Herman, who is also known for MAME and LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, amongst others. Based on the Thornton Wilder play, "The Matchmaker," HELLO DOLLY! ran on Broadway for over 2800 performances and was made into a motion picture starring Barbra Streisand. The initial run had a myriad of stars assume the title role including Pearl Bailey, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman,Phyllis Diller, Martha Raye and Ginger Rogers, to name a few. But it was Channing whose name was forever associated with the role. This reviewer has seen many Dolly's , including the final revival with Channing, who radiated so much star power and charm, it was difficult to ever associate anyone else with that famous red gown and headdress. Then Midler proved she had the charisma and inner radiance to place her mark on Dolly Gallagher Levi, landing every bit of comedy, plus some of her own. Playing against type, Ms. Buckley proved that Dolly could be interpreted by a woman of any age. Buckley was a bit more matronly, but that older age played to her advantage, especially during the monologues that tugged at the heart strings.
The widowed Dolly Levi is a "woman who arranges things." From matchmaker to dance instructor, she does it all. But it is time for her to attend to her own personal life, just as she has meddled in others. The story is one of rebirth, and Dollys of all ages have proved that it is never to late to rejoin the human race. The book by Michael Stewart is a laugh a minute, with preposterous situations that are based on achieving happiness at all costs. The best bits of Wilder's original story allow Dolly to speak directly to the audience, as she speaks to her dead husband. While Dolly can be a whacky cartoonish character, she also has a heart of gold and a truly genuine humanity.
Happily Buffalo audiences are among the last few to see this tour before it ends in 2 weeks. And Carolee Carmello is indeed a Dolly for the musical theatre ages. Ms. Carmello sings the score in a gutsy chest voice that puts other Dolly's to shame. She radiates joy from the outset and has a great comic sense, reminiscent of another red headed comedienne, Lucille Ball. Whether dancing in perfect synch with the chorus boys around the passerelle or hamming it up at the dinner table, Carmello simply captivates.
John Bolton is Horace Vandergelder, the gruff, no nonsense feed shop owner. He is the object of Dolly's desire, and her trickery in convincing him to marry her is all part of her charm. Mr. Bolton brings a fine song and dance man style not usually seen by others who have played the role. His exasperation with Dolly's antics made me recall that the first Working Title of this show was "A Damned Exasperating Woman."
Soprano Jenny Hickman is Irene Molloy and Daniel Beeman is Cornelius Hackl. Hickman recently assumed the role and brings a playful nature coupled with a lovely voice. Mr. Beeman was charming as the naive shop keeper anxious to kiss a girl. His clarion tenor was perfectly suited for the role. Sean Burns is Barnaby Tucker and Chelsea Cree Groen is Minnie Fay, the two younger shy lovers. Both danced with a youthful innocence.
The spectacular sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto are cotton candy for the eye, with his elegant colorful costumes exuding 19th century grace. The fashion parade that struts across the stage in "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" elicits gasps for it's lush colorful palate and elegant lines. Jerry Zaks is a master of musical comedy and his direction is attentive, with an eye for detail and spot on timing. Choreographer Warren Carlyle's dances, with a nod to the great Gower Champion's original choreography, is effortless. The dancers move with a lightness that exudes joy. A sense of buoyancy pervaded the ensemble during the number "Dancing." And the highlight must be the famous "Waiter's Gallop" as they prepare for Dolly's entrance atop the Grand staircase of The Harmonia Gardens. The gentlemen of the ensemble leap, strut and fly with awesome precision. The entire cast is made of strong singers, and when they all sing "It Only Takes A Moment" the audience is bathed in the luscious harmony of this romantic ballad.
The title number reminds everyone why Herman was so beloved for his exuberant music. As Dolly descends that staircase, not only the onstage cast, but the entire audience feels a sense of home. A beloved character has entered our lives again, and for a moment, the cynicism that can encroach everyday life is replaced by a jubilant optimism.
HELLO DOLLY! plays at Sheas's Buffalo Theatre through March 15, 2020. Contact sheas.org for more information.