BWW Review: HELLO DOLLY Dazzles But Disappoints at PPAC
HELLO DOLLY first landed on Broadway in 1964, and the current (2017) revival, playing at Providence Performing Arts Center through March 8, won the Tony Award for Best Revival and Best Actress for Bette Midler. While those who have nostalgia for this show will no doubt think it's fun, the uninitiated may find themselves wishing for a few of the less memorable songs to be traded for more robust character development. Not unlike the recent revival of Miss Saigon, which tried to win new audiences by actually casting Asian actors to play Asian roles and by spending a tremendous amount of money on technical wizardry; this revival of Hello Dolly went all out on sets and costumes, presumably to distract from mostly forgettable songs and a book that is bloated, dated and not nearly as charming as it thinks it is.
It's the 1890s, and Dolly Gallagher Levi (Carolee Carmello) is a gal-of-all-trades and champion meddler. She acts as a sort of matchmaker, dance and mandolin instructor, occasional lawyer and basically has a skill for every eventuality that presents itself. She seems to be well-known in New York City for reasons that are never completely clear, and she confesses to the audience that, though her late husband, Ephraim, was the love of her life, she is determined to marry widower Horace Vandergelder (John Bolton) of Yonkers for his money. She enters his life when he hires her to find him a wife/housekeeper, and then proceeds to break down his defenses until he decides to marry her instead. The B plot revolves around Vendergelder's store clerks traveling into the city and also finding love, while niece Ermengarde, whose would-be fiance also enlists Dolly's help, is seemingly forgotten until the end of the musical, and then dealt with almost as an afterthought.
As one would expect from a musical of this caliber, the performances are mostly excellent, and lead Carolee Carmello is a wildly talented performer. But is as often the case with a touring Broadway show, the performances are so practiced, the costumes so gorgeous and sparkly, and the sets overwhelmingly impressive that it all starts to feel like you're being dazzled into thinking that the show is better than it really is. Vandergelder is a cranky, misogynist miser who lacks a single likeable quality - his first song is about how great it is to have a wife to clean your house for you - but whom the audience is supposed to want Dolly to end up with. He spends the entire musical telling her he won't marry her before having an abrupt and unearned change of heart right before final curtain. Dolly is a charming and vivacious character, but even in the title role, it feels like she's not on stage all that much. She seems more than capable of taking care of herself and doesn't love or intend to love Vandergelder, so her marrying him really feels like she's rushing toward a gilded cage. Large sections of the musical focus on other characters who are equally underdeveloped. It's really hard to root for anyone.
Despite the shortcomings in plot and character, it must be noted that the sets and costumes are stunning. The costumes, by Santo Loquasto, are a cavalcade of delightful pastel prints with massive bustles that move beautifully during the high-energy dance numbers. Dolly's red dress and gorgeous diamond necklace are pure elegance. There are several massive set pieces that dominate the stage-- Vandergelder's Feed Store, the train from Yonkers to New York City and the glamorous Harmonia Gardens restaurant with a massive grand staircase and curtained dining booths. To see this level of set building for a touring production is a delight, and after watching many shows in recent years that rely on projections rather than physical sets, this is a rare treat.
No one who sees this show could ever say that it's not well-executed. Every little detail seems to have been meticulously thought of, except cutting down and updating the dated script. This show has certainly entertained many over the years, but not everything old needs to be new again.
HELLO DOLLY runs March 4-8 at Providence Performing Arts Center 220 Weybosset St Providence, Rhode Island 02903 Tickets available at ppacri.org or by calling (401) 421 - ARTS (2787)
Photo: Carolee Carmello as Dolly Photograph by Julieta Cervantes 2019