Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!

The amount of love that’s been put into this production of HELLO, DOLLY! will return tenfold to its community.

By: Jun. 21, 2024
Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!
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Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!

The role of a matchmaker has endured for centuries, evolving with the social mores and integrated communities that form from various cultural shifts. No longer viewed as just the elderly widow who meddles in the lives of young people, matchmaking has become a calculated algorithm. Prospective and potential partners can use dating apps to filter through their future spouses, offering approval and disinterest at the mere swipe of a screen. And yet, it’s typically when these digital couplings find themselves in the physical presence of the other that a happiness and bond forms. Beyond words, beyond the imagination, the reality of a partner and all their foibles will always outweigh the more idealized rendition of them we build up in our minds.

Likewise, the role of theatre has endured for just as long. Through the careful construction of a blank canvas into a workable space meant to emulate life, a talented crew of craftspeople and performers showcase a narrative that appeals to our emotions. Musical theatre, in particular, asks us to believe that a simple story can be better told through song. When you have everything to say, a song at just the right time makes the emotion of the moment ten times more potent. The best of musicals – and stage performance, in general – have that timing perfected better than any dating app algorithm because of the human connection. The energy shared between those on the stage, those in the wings, and those in the audience creates a harmonious balance of epic proportions, making the stage such a valuable and important part of the very essence of the human condition. It’s through the shared, communal experience that we learn.

Encore! Performing Arts has understood the importance of these communal experiences for over two decades. They have always contributed to the betterment of Central Florida theatre community by showcasing musicals that appeal to their audiences, whilst offering the motivational messages that keep the community alive and thriving. In addition, they find new ways to re-invent what’s been done before, whether it be mounting a classic musical (Cabaret) or introducing a fairly new one (Head Over Heels) in theatre spaces that benefit the story and the performers. Last year, Encore! returned to the Dr. Phillips Center with Monty Python’s Spamalot, a grand and spectacular production that delighted audiences. Encore! is sure to strike gold once more with this weekend’s production of the ever-enduring, always-optimistic 1964 musical HELLO, DOLLY!

Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!

To say that HELLO, DOLLY! began in 1964 would be inaccurate as the broad story of a shop owner and his underlings had its roots over a century earlier. A one-act English farce entitled A Day Well Spent saw Bolt and Mizzle, the inspiration for Cornelius and Barnaby, have a night on the town only to run into their boss Mr. Cotton, who would later become Horace Vandergelder. This male-dominated comedy would get expanded into an Austrian play, He’ll Have Himself a Good Time, before American playwright Thornton Wilder adapted it himself into The Merchant of Yonkers. It was in this 1938 play that the character of Dolly Gallagher Levi was created, her role expanding into that of a co-lead, and eventually the headlining star. By 1954, Wilder renamed the play The Matchmaker, which was turned into a feature film starring Shirley Booth; a decade later, the musical version came about under the now-familiar title Hello, Dolly! The new musical became a smash hit, winning ten Tony Awards and running until 1970, all the while showcasing various A-list performers as Dolly Levi, including the likes of Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, and Ethel Merman. The countless tours and revivals that have sprung up have only ensured its longevity, as many an actress has found herself finally reaching a certain age to now play the mature role. Just as Dolly herself finds a second act in matchmaking, so, too, do her performers find a second act in the role.

This weekend’s performer, the ebullient and cheerful Jodi Benson, may know a thing or two about navigating that second act. By name alone, Disney fans will already know her as the iconic voice of Ariel, central heroine in 1989’s animated classic The Little Mermaid. She’s returned to voice the role time and again, including for the syndicated television series, two sequels, and various theme park shows and parades. Most recently, Benson returned to record a few lines for the company’s centenary-celebrating short film “Once Upon a Studio.” But what many might not know is Benson’s roots as a performer began in Broadway. Before she found herself in a recording booth, Benson could be found among the ensemble for Marilyn: An American Fable or starring in the now “lost” musical Smile, which introduced her to future The Little Mermaid collaborator Howard Ashman. In 1992, Benson received a Tony Award for her role as Polly Baker in Crazy For You. She then joined the touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as the Narrator. Then, a left turn.

No, this wasn’t a pause on her career.  Hardly. The trajectory of her life pointed her towards parenthood as she and husband Ray raised their two children – son McKinley and daughter Delaney – while both still active in their performing fields. Benson continued to voice Ariel in various Disney projects, also stepping into other voice roles (such as Barbie in the Toy Story films) and the occasional acting job when time allowed. But with McKinley now a filmmaker and Delaney a performer, Jodi Benson has decided to return to stage acting after over two decades away from that spotlight. Last year, she co-starred with daughter Delaney in a production of Gypsy. The production lasted only two nights, but served as a long-overdue welcome back for Benson to the stage.

Having attended a performance, I must say it was a transformative experience. The fleeting nature of live theatre means that some of the best performances ever made are left solely to memory. Jodi Benson as Mama Rose was a game-changing interpretation of the role, one which deserves much more recognition and accolades than a weekend's run at a local theatre. Fortunately for audiences, Benson and her daughter will reprise the roles next year for a weeklong production in Rochester, New York. In the meantime, Benson and Encore! Performing Arts have teamed up to bring us this year’s Encore! musical extravaganza as these unstoppable forces of talent, time, and devotion come together to share in the timeless tale of Dolly Levi, Horace Vandergelder, Cornelius and Irene, Barnaby and Minnie, and how it only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.

Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!

At the turn of the century, New York City society woman and widow Dolly Levi (Jodi Benson) has made a second-act career out of matchmaking, among a myriad of other talents. Having been employed by shop owner Horace Vandergelder (Christopher Schmidt), Dolly decides that no woman is suitable for him except herself. Thus, she sets into motion an elaborate plan to convince Horace to marry her, all the while juggling both intentional and unintentional couplings of varying degrees of relation to the elder Vandergelder. His niece Ermengarde (Victoria Pagán) wants to marry starving artist Ambrose Kemper (Michael Angelini, Jr.), while his clerks Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker (Adam Paul and Oakley Thacker, respectively) decide they deserve a night out on the town. Dolly promises Ermengarde and Ambrose that she’ll sweet-talk Horace into letting the couple marry, while keeping an eye on Cornelius and Barnaby. The two men conspire to close shop early and sneak away to New York City.

Within the sprawling metropolitan, Horace intends to call on hat shop owner Irene Molloy (Natalie Hightower), a young widow that wants to attract a rich gentleman caller and get out of the millinery business. She finds herself attracted to Cornelius Hackl, mistakenly believing the clerk is rich, while her assistant Minnie Fay (Solmarie Cruz) takes an immediate liking to Barnaby. The quartet agree to have a night on the town, starting with dinner at Harmonia Gardens. Horace, upon deciding that Irene Malloy is unsuitable for a wife, takes Dolly’s advice to set him up with an heiress named Ernestina Money (Kathryn Nash). However, Ernestina is part of Dolly’s elaborate plan, as all couplings end up at the Harmonia Gardens for a madcap evening that, inexplicably, ends up in New York City night court.

HELLO, DOLLY! makes no qualms about its cheerful optimism. Yet, this nostalgic look back at early twentieth century social customs sometimes felt out of place among the decade of counterculture. Could the pop culture shelf of 1964 really hold Hello, Dolly! alongside The Beatles and Bob Dylan? Would the relentless sentimentality of “It Only Takes a Moment” have as much significance as “The Times They Are A-Changin’”? Perhaps its out-of-time nature is what has kept HELLO, DOLLY! so enduring. It may have been seen as sweetly old-fashioned to a 1964 audience, but with enough time, has now aged better than its contemporaries; for example: the weirdness of 1965’s psychological mindwarp On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. I doubt we’ll see anyone clamoring for a revival of that anytime soon.

Part and parcel of HELLO, DOLLY!’s timelessness lies within its 19th century origins. Farcical comedy doesn’t always land in modern productions, yet feels perfectly natural when displaced to a time foreign to the audience. Thus, the turn-of-the-century period and the absurdities of some near-miss situations are more believable. Performers toe the line between live human and cartoon character in their exaggerated movements, elocution, and delivery that translate better on stage than on film. As the musical ages over time, some of the characters’ motivations may feel out of place, but the well-rehearsed pratfalls, flips, and pantomiming will forever get laughs.

Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!

Yet, even with the fun of farce, the main strength behind HELLO, DOLLY!’s endurance lies within the role of Dolly Levi herself. While Hollywood may be quick to dismiss a female performer once they’ve reached a certain age, Broadway has always found or created roles to embrace women beyond their ingenue years. HELLO, DOLLY! sits alongside classics like Gypsy, Mame, and Chicago, as well as contemporary musicals like Next to Normal and The Bridges of Madison County to keep these seasoned, mature performers in the spotlight. Life goes on even when aging out of a role or profession, with the thesis of HELLO, DOLLY! itself being to find and embrace whatever that next stage will be in life. Whether it be a career change or a partnership or even just moving from New York City to Yonkers, that next place should be seen as a new chapter and a happy beginning, not a mournful end to what once was.

Likewise, the romantic entanglements of HELLO, DOLLY! cannot be read simply as “and they all live happily ever after.” Within the uncertainty of a future chapter for these characters, they all engage into their couplings with an understanding that they do so together. They make their love work, which helps to differentiate these love stories from fairy-tale depictions or Hollywood rom-coms. Falling in love is easy, there’s a whole song about it in this musical, But staying in love is where the hard work comes into play, which is why even the earnest naiveté of Cornelius and Barnaby gets tested by the play’s end. They stand to lose everything they worked for in their defiance of Horace for their loves of Irene and Minnie, yet it’s a challenge they’re willing to face head on. We should be so lucky if we didn’t have to fight for love after the fall. That’s also what makes HELLO, DOLLY! a paradoxical compatriot to the Free Love counterculture of its time. Love is love, which this musical champions even among the old-fashionedness of its setting and story.

HELLO, DOLLY! has withstood every test of time, going so far as to find new relevance in the twenty-first century thanks to WALL•E, the 2008 Pixar film set hundreds of years in the future in which the last bastion of twentieth century pop culture to remain is an oft-played, worn-out videocassette of Hello, Dolly! Moments of the film are weaved throughout, particularly “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment.” A newfound appreciation grew for the musical, seen usually as a sentimental memory of the past, but not as relevant as the next generation of musicals to come in its wake. And the WALL•E effect led to, perhaps in the long game, the universally beloved Broadway revival in 2017, featuring Bette Midler as the latest Dolly Levi. In a way, HELLO, DOLLY!’s own second act shares some credit with that little waste-allocation robot that could.

Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!

Encore! Performing Arts’ production of HELLO, DOLLY! leans heavily into the relentless optimism and good time that’s made the musical a classic. They’ve crafted together a show which takes advantage of every aspect of its production, from the costumes to the orchestrations to the simple power of a Look from the lead. It’s a blending of talent both familiar and new to Central Florida, giving our community two nights of unbridled joy in which we celebrate sharing that love with those we may not even know. In a darkened theatre, we are all the same – eyes beholden to the magic on stage. And what a magical show we envision.

At the helm of this year’s Encore! production is veteran performer Kristen Sheola. This is not Sheola’s first time collaborating with Encore!, as she started with the company of players in 2017 when she portrayed Amber Von Tussle in Hairspray. Sheola’s also honed her skills off the stage through assistant directing of the last few Encore! shows, which has resulted in a fantastic debut production under her watchful eye as director. I’d seen HELLO, DOLLY! twice before on the stage, a touring production of the Broadway show and another local production in Central Florida, yet the show felt fresh, revitalized, and new to me. It was as if seeing the material for the first time, through a director that embraced aspects of the material sometimes downplayed in other productions.

Dolly’s occasional asides to her late husband Ephraim, for example, typically play on the stage without much notice. Sometimes, they simply come across as Dolly talking to herself to justify her actions. Sheola’s turned these asides into moments of prayer, adjusting the lighting and the tone of the words to feel more ethereal. We’re witnessing Dolly at her most vulnerable, with Sheola directing Benson to create a communal moment of serenity among the comedic din that dominated the stage only seconds ago. I’d never noticed how impactful these asides were in the past, but now they make the pay-off by the end worth all the wishing and the hoping that a prayer will be answered.

Sheola also can be considered a performer’s director, as her own experience and previous direction is delivered with the same guidance to her players on the stage. She’s worked virtually every stage show you can imagine in the Disney and Universal theme park circuit, while also making time for local productions (The Wild Party and If/Then at Theater West End, for example). So there’s a lot in her wheelhouse to draw upon and share with the variety of performers Encore! has selected this year.

Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!

Chief among them is Disney Legend Jodi Benson, whose Dolly Levi is a far cry from Gypsy’s Mama Rose. Whereas Rose was brash and domineering, Dolly is sparkling and resourceful. The sharp tongue of Rose gets traded for the wittiness of Dolly. Benson knows how to work the crowd in the show without drawing away from the story, never showboating for the sake of a reaction. Rather, she holds a line, exaggerates one, or even adjusts her movement to keep the pace of a scene organic, while still working with the audience’s energy. And that voice that we’ve loved for thirty-five years? She’s still got It. The restrained, whispery delivery that made “Part of Your World” so endearing has been optioned up for truly powerhouse delivery on a belting song like “Before the Parade Passes By.” She takes true advantage of the acoustics at Steinmetz Hall, so much so that one would think the concert hall was designed specifically to showcase her holding the long note in “So Long, Dearie.”

Providing a more grounded performance and character is Christopher Schmidt as the eternally-miserable Horace Vandergelder. Every comedy needs a straightman, with Horace and Schmidt filling that role. He’s immune to the comedy that befalls everyone else, though he sometimes ends up victim to an antic here and there. Yet Schmidt makes the grumpus relatable, perhaps through a winking eye at the old-fashioned views the character has and his out-of-touch nature with the farcical world around him. He softens up throughout the show, with Schmidt driving that point across through the delivery of his two songs. “It Takes a Woman” has a growling, harsh tone. I’d initially say he were playing it as a villain, but a more apt comparison would be Grumpy Old Man. By the time he sings the familiar “Hello, Dolly,” there’s a new smoothness, a crisp way he says her name now with affection rather than disdain.

Encore! veterans Natalie Hightower (Sordid Lives) and Adam Paul (Spamalot) also return to the stage this year, this time as the first-sight loves Irene Malloy and Cornelius Hackl. Hightower’s refined delivery and pitch-perfect solo “Ribbons Down My Back” make Irene just as much a straightwoman to Paul’s Cornelius, who has his fair share of physical gag. Their “Dancing” serves as a highlight for both actors, intentionally playing amateurs who learned the moves five minutes ago but then flourishing across the stage as old pros. By the time we reach “It Only Takes A Moment,” we believe these characters are very much and truly in love despite having only met hours ago.

Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!

Likewise, Hightower and Paul’s younger counterparts can be found through Oakley Thacker’s Barnaby Tucker and Solmarie Cruz Martinez’s Minnie Fay. Thacker previously portrayed Barnaby at the Hale Center Theatre, bringing his familiarity and ease to the role here to the Encore! production. As a result, he’s got the most physical gags among the cast, but delivers them as effortlessly as breathing. He’s a regular Harold Lloyd in this show, gliding along the floor, casually doing a backflip, yet making it all seem natural behavior. Martinez’s Minnie has one memorable, primal scream that she delivers with same artistic conviction as the Edvard Munch painting, but plays well opposite Thacker’s antics. She’s also a rarity among the players as she speaks directly to the audience upon her introduction, filling us in on society gossip but playing it as if it were vital information. The teenage twosome serve as a more grounded version to the other young coupling in the show.

Ermengarde Vandergelder may well be a thankless, weepy role. The character clearly never benefits from growth across different adaptations as Dolly did, but Victoria Pagán does make the character more sympathetic. Able to wail on command, she turns the sadness into a melodic note that makes us feel for her. And it wouldn’t be an Encore! show if it didn’t have Michael Angelini, Jr., who plays the sprightly young artist Ambrose Kemper. Pagán and Angelini have more limited stage time than the primary six players, but do well to make an impact in their scenes.

That is true of all the minor characters. Each are given a moment to shine among the leads, particularly Kathryn Nash’s portrayal of the bubbleheaded Ernestina Money. She’s here for a good time, not a long time, but you never forget her. Thom Bradford’s Rudolph, the head waiter at Harmonia Gardens, must coordinate and conduct his team of waiters in “The Waiters’ Gallop,” all the while still running his (fictional) restaurant on that stage. In a sentimental nod to the past, Beth Ann Stripling plays Mrs. Rose, reminding us to never forget where we came from. Late in the game, Gerald Kitt and Neydi Jimenez hold a “Night Court” that allows both to relish in their brief, sitcom-esque depiction of how the NBC comedy might have played a hundred years in the past.

Even amidst the wide range of characters of HELLO, DOLLY!, a sprawling ensemble, 24 strong, brings the worlds of Yonkers and New York City to life. They may be people about town, they may be parade attendants, they may be waiters and chefs at Harmonia. Best of all, they do it all in careful coordination to create a vibrant and kinetic tapestry of action on the stage. Dance captains Starr Neadre and Bobby Wojciechowski enjoy a few notable solos throughout the show. “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Dancing,” and “Hello, Dolly” serve as the big dance numbers, with the entire team all on point. These dance numbers have come to life through the co-choreography of Trase and Olivia Milburn, a husband-and-wife team that also devised the choreography in last year’s Spamalot. They know when to stay faithful to the Gower Champion’s original Broadway choreo (namely when Dolly leads a conga line of waiters in perfect clockwise formation), but also inject elements of their own design, such as kaleidoscope formation in “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” or how different couplings control the stage in “Dancing.”

Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!

The intense physicality of all these performers require workable costumes that allow them to not feel stuffed or restricted. Wesley Schaffer has designed a variety of costumes for these players, including no less than four costumes for Jodi Benson alone. All his designs are period specific, but with the practical sensibility of performers in constant motion. Thus, they’re form-fitting with a great degree of flexibility. The bright pastels for the people of Yonkers are countered by more urban and darker tones once we reach New York. And yet there’s that classiness to everyone dining or working at Harmonia Gardens. The way all these elements come together – vocals, choreography, and costuming – certainly befits not just HELLO, DOLLY!, but its performance space as well.

Flanking the stage is the Encore! Cast Choir, broken into two groups left and right of the central action. Unlike last year's Spamalot where they dressed in costume, the Cast Choir dons all black this year, semi-masking their appearances, but never their voices. In a humorous twist, only the men sing during Horace's "It Takes a Woman," as the entire male ensemble - on and off the stage - do their best to echo out Horace's absurdist view of a housewife. But the Choir truly comes alive when that chorale emerges for "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment." Everyone in the room fills the space with absolute harmony that justifies using Steinmetz Hall.

Steinmetz Hall at Dr. Phillips Center was designed primarily for concert performances, less so for performative musicals like HELLO, DOLLY!. Thus, the sets designed for the show would need to keep in mind how the aural environment would benefit, without getting hindered by any physical movements. Longtime Encore! scenic designer Cliff Price (assisted by Ty Menard and Michael Hirsch) crafted elements of a stage show to let the vocals of the cast reverberate perfectly through the Hall, while never sacrificing the integrity of their physical space. A rear-projected scrim and movable set pieces create Vandergelder's Hay & Feed, while Irene Malloy’s Millinery is supported through a triptych of window and door frames. But it’s the Harmonia Gardens set that most wows the audience. Two private dining rooms, the elegant staircase, and all the red lighting one can imagine.

Holly Whelden-Carpenter’s choice in lighting each environment allows each location to feel unique even when sharing the same stage. Her use of spotlights to create a white-light focus among the different cityscape scrims feels much like a callback to Morton DaCosta’s use of the spotlight in his filmed productions of Auntie Mame and The Music Man. And, as mentioned earlier, that soft blue used for Dolly’s asides to Ephraim helps guide the audience into another world, if only for a moment. It’s these moments that make the show such a relatable one for the audience.

Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!

I've never thought of HELLO, DOLLY! as a spiritually-based musical before. Yet, through the wonders of the vocals in Steinmetz Hall, there was a sense of a religious experience happening. The power of a song often optimizes one's feelings, and these tuneful ditties I'd hum at work suddenly felt much more attuned to my faith than I ever expected. At the heart of HELLO, DOLLY! is a story about how love - true love, earned love, new love and old - can guide us all to a happiness we both need and deserve. Whether it's picking up the pieces after a loss, or embarking on a newfound relationship, the love that is shared among these characters feels much like the lessons of Christ I was taught in Sunday school. Love one another, as I have loved you. Whether or not one is of a particular faith or belief, the lesson of love is universal, a commentary on the human condition. To love another is the greatest achievement in the world. And the amount of love given and taken for HELLO, DOLLY! has made this show such an achievement for all involved. These folks give their time, take sacrifices of their own, in order to allow another to experience the joy that theatre creates. And, in the ripple effect of how love works, pass it on to someone else who may not even be aware.

The greatest testament of how Encore! Performing Arts gives back to the community it serves can be found in where portions of the proceeds from this production are going. Encore! has partnered not just with Jodi Benson, Disney Legend extraordinaire, but also with the local non-profit Give Kids the World Village. This non-profit resort offers, free of charge, weeklong vacations for critically-ill children and their families that they may experience all that Walt Disney World and its surrounding areas have to offer. Even if it’s just a moment of happiness amid a lifetime of doctor’s visits and hospital stays, Give Kids the World ensures that every family in their resort be allowed to share in the joy and optimism and pleasure that always keep families coming back time and again. Sometimes, these children may not get their chance at a second-act shift in life. But for a week, they and their families can feel like they can.

To turn a phrase that Dolly Levi and Horace Vandergelder was wont to say: love is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow. The amount of love that’s been put into this production of HELLO, DOLLY! will return tenfold to its community. Whether it inspire more folks to check out the arts, or finance another child’s wish to see Cinderella Castle, or give us more moments to be loved a whole life long, HELLO, DOLLY! will never say goodbye. Likewise, Jodi Benson will always be Ariel, but now she is Mama Rose and Dolly Levi and whoever else she encounters on this journey. And, as always, Encore! will be here to make sure that we in Central Florida have a reason to smile, to laugh, and to applaud them for everything they do. Holy cabooses, isn’t this world full of wonderful things?

Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!

Review: Hello, Jodi! It's a Match Made in Heaven with Encore! Performing Arts in HELLO, DOLLY!

HELLO, DOLLY! plays exclusively this weekend, June 21 and 22, at Dr. Phillips Center’s Steinmetz Hall. Tickets can be acquired online or at the box office, pending availability. Pictures by Tiffany Bagwell Photography, used with permission.


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