BWW Review: Wow! Wow! Wow, Fellas! Look at DOLLY Now, Fellas: She's Spectacular!
It only takes a moment to realize that composer/lyricist Jerry Herman, aided and abetted by book writer Michael Stewart (with an able assist from Thornton Wilder), knew exactly what he was doing when he created the classic Broadway musical Hello, Dolly!: put together a star vehicle for a quintessential theater diva, surround her with characters both irascible and lovable, then give them all a score that's delightfully hummable and danceable and a script that's appealingly daft, maybe even a little goofy.
The resulting show - if it's proven anything during its 55-year history - is a musical theater juggernaut, a warhorse of music and spectacle, with the golden glow of nostalgia and uproarious comic hijinks that have provided Broadway stars who either became household names because of it (the late, great Carol Channing's spirit is never far from your thoughts when you hear an orchestra tune up to play Herman's glorious overture) or to shape the show to their unique talents (Bette Midler became the toast of the Great White Way in the Tony Award-winning 2017 revival) an opportunity to show us what she's made of, while delighting audiences in stellar, even stupendous, fashion.
There's no way you can watch the sparkling, dazzling, over-the-top startling and stunning revival of Hello, Dolly! now onstage for an eight-performance run through next Sunday at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center and not be absolutely thrilled by the sheer size and spectacle of the production. And to their enormous credit, producers of the national tour provide audiences with a leading lady whose resume is just as starry, just as impressive, just as giddily anticipated as the aforementioned Misses Channing and Midler in the person of Betty Buckley, the Broadway legend who has brought both Grizabella and Norma Desmond to life onstage. Watching Buckley as the redoubtable Dolly Gallagher Levi is worth the price of admission - and them some! - and it's clear from the very first moment she steps onstage (or, more to the point, rolls onstage aboard a streetcar in 1895 Yonkers, New York) that the wonderfully skilled actress has her audience quite firmly and confidently in the palms of her hands.
Truth be told, if Betty Buckley came from the wings to plant herself downstage and slightly left (or right) of center, we'd likely be just as mesmerized and, admittedly, in love with her. She is such a compelling performer, instantly accessible and altogether gracious onstage (her final curtain call gives you an inkling of her largesse toward her castmates among the glittering ensemble of skilled actors who surround and support her), that we suspect audiences could be held in her thrall for an indefinite period of time. Dressing her in Santo Loquasto's exquisite costumes and providing her with Jerry Herman's timeless songs to sing (her rendition of "Before the Parade Passes By" surely packs an emotional wallop) and a cast that includes Lewis J. Stadlen, Nic Rouleau, Analisa Leaming, Sean Burns and Kristen Hahn may seem the theatrical version of "gilding the lily," but it is an embarrassment of riches that reminds you how transportive and how superbly entertaining musical theater can be.
It many ways, this revival of Hello, Dolly! currently making its way around the country takes you out of the real world to a place of heightened reality, created in vivid color and with remarkable style, and placing you right smack dab in the middle of the golden age of American musical theater. But the theatrical wizardry that abounds in this production reminds you that it's a new version, all shiny and sparkling, that could only be realized in the 21st century. As a result, you'll be riveted to your seat in Andrew Jackson Hall (or any other theater in which you get to enjoy the riches of this particular Dolly), eager to absorb the experience, ensuring you hear every note sung, respond to every word uttered and watching a company of impressively talented individuals come together to create something that will live on in your memory for the rest of your life.
Hello, Dolly! is the apotheosis of musical comedy, as we have come to love and revere it. We're just lucky to see it happen in front of our very eyes.
Director Jerry Zaks crafts a production that will be talked about for years to come, whether you caught it on Broadway or saw it on tour - and choreographer Warren Carlyle ensures a cavalcade of high-spirited musical theater highlights, energized by his capable cast. "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" is breathtaking, "Elegance" is deliriously enchanting, and the title tune (the entire Harmonia Gardens pastiche, from "The Waiters Gallop" to "The Contest") is everything you could possibly hope for . . . and more.
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of American musical theater should be acutely aware of the story of Hello, Dolly! (which comes from Thornton Wilder's 1955 play The Matchmaker, which in turn first saw the light of day in 1938 when he titled it The Merchant of Yonkers): A strong and independent woman named Dolly Gallagher Levi travels to Yonkers to help well-known half-a-millionaire, the miserly and misogynistic - and unmarried - Horace Vandergelder - to find a second wife. There are candidates aplenty, but Dolly deems herself the perfect one and for the next two-and-a-half hours, audiences are treated to her machinations and manipulations to ensure that by the final curtain she does, indeed, add "Vandergelder" to her moniker. In the meantime, we're introduced to all sorts of interesting characters who allow her to work her matchmaking magic, which takes a circuitous route to that moment in which Horace proclaims his love for his leading lady.
Surely, telling you what happens by show's end is not a spoiler - but even if you don't know how things work out (and I have spilled the contents of Dolly's outsized handbag all over the internet), you may rest assured that nothing could deter you from the full enjoyment of a thoroughly silly and slight, but completely engaging and evocative, musical diversion in which the ending is ever-so-happy and the characters even more so.
Buckley is a bona fide musical theater legend and her presence and charm ensures a performance as remarkable and indelible as you could possibly imagine, cracking wise with her co-stars, and assuring her audience, with both a wink and a nod, that they are a vital part of what's happening in the rarefied world of the theater. It is a sweet, perhaps even sentimental, acknowledgement that we're all in this together and that the success of any theatrical undertaking is dependent not only on the people bringing a story to life on an expansive stage, but also those people taking it all in from the orchestra and balcony (or the loge or the grand tier . . . well, you get my meaning).
And while Buckley acquits herself quite remarkably throughout the show, can there be a production number more audaciously designed for a theatrical diva than when Dolly returns to her beloved Harmonia Gardens in Act Two? When Buckley appears at the top of Loquasto's soaring staircase, clad in a sparkling red gown, her hair festooned with a crown of scarlet feathers and glittering bugle beads and rhinestones that threaten to outshine the sun - she stops the show, if not the hearts of every person sitting in the theater, watching intently and rapturously as she makes her descent. (Seriously, the intake of breath from the audience, gasping at the sight of Buckley, is as awe-inspiring as the spectacle of the moment itself).
Lewis J. Stadlen is terrific as Horace, offering younger actors a master class in how to bring a character off the page to full and exhilarating life in the glow of Natasha Katz's gorgeous lighting and his onstage chemistry with Buckley is palpable.
The attractive and enormously talented Nic Rouleau (as Horace's head clerk and factotum Cornelius Hackl) is ideally cast as the wide-eyed and innocent 33-year-old yearning to experience life (kissing a girl will do quite nicely, thank you very much) and to go on an adventure in the streets of New York City. Analisa Leaming, who grew up in Murfreesboro, returns to Tennessee and the theater where own Broadway musical dreams were born, in a role perfectly suited to her estimable skills, playing milliner Irene Malloy with equal parts refinement and out-sized romantic exuberance. In fact, we don't remember ever seeing an Irene who's more vibrant and alive than she is played by Leaming, who shows off her lovely voice ("Ribbons Down My Back" is heartfelt and poignant) to perfection.
As Cornelius' co-conspirator, co-worker and cohort Barnaby Tucker, Sean Burns shows off his amazing versatility throughout his performance and is rewarded with the ardor of an audience quick to take notice of his dancing abilities and easy-going grace. He's paired to good effect with Kristen Hahn, who proves his equal to win much applause herself. Colin LeMoine is a delightfully off-kilter Ambrose Kemper, with Morgan Kirner giving her own scene-stealing turn as Horace's rather anxious niece Ermengarde. Jessica Sheridan is great as the unfortunately named Ernestina Money and Wally Dunn presides over the raucous proceedings at the Harmonia Gardens with self-assurance.
The show's ensemble is fairly remarkable - they sing, they dance, they act with equal dexterity, skill and emotion at full throttle for more than two hours - and allow the production to soar to dizzying heights under the direction of Jerry Zaks, who keeps the action moving at a near-cinematic clip. Choreographer Warren Carlyle puts his dancers through all the paces, creating some exhilarating moments with his movement and guaranteeing an eye-popping performance.
Loquasto creates an awe-inspiring visual aesthetic for Hello, Dolly! - a colorful, fantastical world that is instantly transformative - and Katz's lighting design punctuates the onstage action with her skilled eye for perfection.
Conductor Robert Billig's orchestra - made up of a touring ensemble of players augmented by a large contingent of some of Music City's best musicians - give Herman's timeless and time-honored score the reverence it's due, but more importantly play with passion and verve the music that seems a part of our very musical theater soul.
Hello, Dolly! Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Michael Stewart. Based on the play The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Musical direction by Robert Billig. Original production directed and choreographed by Gower Champion. Presented at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall, Nashville. Through Sunday, May 5. For further details and/or ticket information, go to www.tpac.org or call (615) 782-4040. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (with one 20-minute intermission).
- photos by Julieta Cervantes