Seattle Review: Hello, Dolly!

A star performance needs strong support. Even the greatest of leading ladies can't save a production boggled by misguided choices. It is too bad that Village Theatre's wonky new production of Hello, Dolly! is never able to live up to its delightful star (in her return to Seattle/>/>) Peggy O'Connell. With a solidly tuneful Jerry Herman score, a tight book by Michael Stewart, and opportunities for multiple star turns, you would expect this local revival to be a triumph. Sadly, director Steve Tomkins' tendency to gravitate towards the superficial requires O'Connell to make a difficult uphill climb. Stars of her caliber should never be subjected to this chore.

One of the greatest musicals of the Golden Age, Hello, Dolly! is based on Thornton Wilder's equally classic play The Matchmaker. Widowed Dolly Gallagher Levi has a knack for making matches, but has yet to find one for herself since the death of her beloved husband. When Horace Vandergelder enlists her services, Dolly soon decides that she is his ideal match. Much hilarity ensues as a series of bright characters attempt to fit into a world full of changing ideas and expectations. Though many consider Hello, Dolly! to be Carol Channing's vehicle, big stars like Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, and Ginger Rogers have also essayed the role. The underrated 1969 film features Barbra Streisand in a tour-de-force performance of the highest variety. Channing's farewell tour of Hello, Dolly! made a stop in Seattle/>/> with the husky voiced diva still in fine form.

Also in fine form is veteran actress Peggy O'Connell in a role she was born to play. O'Connell brings class, sophistication, and an exact knowledge of the ins-and-outs of musical theatre performance to the table. Her work here is a tribute to the past. She echoes the styles of Martin, Channing, Streisand, and even warbles a little Merman in her introductory, "I Put My Hand In". O'Connell's Dolly is an eclectic creation full of peculiar details that are a bright spot of this flat production. Her strong belt is on full display as she croons, scats, and shimmies her way through one of the trickiest roles in musical theatre history.

O'Connell shines despite Tompkin's cardboard approach. His cut and paste staging clearly divides the book scenes and musical numbers. He is never able to integrate things as seamlessly as the show's original director (and large reason for the original success of Hello, Dolly!) Gower Champion. Tomkin's awkward choreography frequently stops the action from advancing, and little of his work tries to build character. His detailed staging of "Motherhood", a hilarious hide-and-go seek number, is the only successful staging of the evening. But Tomkins' work in the big numbers of the show fails to pack much of a punch. Big showstoppers like "Before the Parade Passes By", "Dancing", and "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" are underwhelming dilemmas full of jazz squares, jazz hands, and repetitive steps galore. His work never seems specific to this particular show. His staging of the title number (and its preceeding "Waiters' Gallop) fails to produce the necessary goosebumps. There is little buildup to what should be a jaw-dropping entrance for O'Connell.

Tomkins never allows his company to gain ownership of the work he has assigned. Most of the ensemble dances with a fake grin that only serves to mock the material and make it look dustier than it actually is. Tomkins has misread the many audience addresses in Stewart's book, filling his production with a corny insincerity that strips most of the inherit warmth of the piece. O'Connell's love of musical theatre is apparent throughout, but Tomkins is unable to bring similar joy to the table. O'Connell finds better support in her leading man, John Patrick Lowrie, who gives a grumpy, goofy, lovable reading of Horace.

Even when Village's productions are less than stellar, you can almost always count on superb designs throughout. Unfortunately, Tomkin's cheesy approach has negatively influenced the physical layout. Bill Forrester's badly painted set is an absolute eyesore. It looks like it cost about a buck-and-a-half to build, with obvious nicks and botched paintjobs clearly visible. A false proscenium looks like it was made of butcher paper, the train for "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" echoes red cardboard, and an opening curtain closely resembles a golden Brillo pad. Karen Ledger's striking costumes manage to make Forrester's set look shoddier. Greg Sullivan's lighting battles Forrester's flat design too often.

Billie Wildrick brings layers of depth to hat shop owner (and Dolly's first match for Horace) Irene Malloy. Wildrick captures every delicate nuance of Mrs Malloy. She provides a surprisingly haunting "Ribbons Down My Back", perfectly echoing a woman's plea for adventure. Wildrick's versatile voice and unrivaled acting skills make her a prime candidate to play Eva Peron in Village's upcoming Evita. After years of soubrette roles in Seattle/>/>, Wildrick is ready to take the lead.

Ms. Wildrick's precise acting skills look quite odd next to Greg Allen's one-dimensional Cornelius. He is barely believable as Horace's chief clerk, playing the book scenes like he's waiting for the next musical number. His shtick heavy delivery never convinces us to care about Cornelius' fate. Allen's performance unintentionally mocks the dignity of a frequently stereotyped genre. His work here seems more intent on impressing than conveying. Wildrick struggles to find some kind of spark with Allen, but his hollow take on things gives her an impossible wall to climb. They are never able to make the secondary love story sparkle. Also problematic are Casey Craig and Shanna Marie Palmer as their sidekicks Barnaby and Minnie Fay. They make the key mistake of acknowledging the dimness of their characters. They play ideas instead of intentions. Tompkins also avoids fleshing out their relationship (as Champion did) in "Dancing".

Tompkins' casting of the male chorus is also a chief problem of this Hello, Dolly!. When Dolly makes her triumphant return to the Harmonia/> Gardens/>/> restaurant, she is greeted by a swarm of youthful faces that seem to have been around during her glory days. This strips even more believability from this production. Bobbi Kotula is a hoot as Horace's second match Ernestina (though she never gets to use her stellar pipes), Mo Brady gives another strong performance as dancing painter Ambrose Kemper (his voice is wasted too), and Greta Bloor is annoying as Horace's niece Ermengarde.

Village's Hello, Dolly! often plays like a dinner theatre presentation. While you may often find yourself waiting for your entrée, O'Connell's truly magnificent Dolly Levi is a sight to behold.

Hello, Dolly! runs at Village Theatre in Issaquah through June 25th . For tickets call (425) 392-2202. Village will begin their 2006-2007 season in September with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's masterpiece Evita.

Top: Peggy O'Connell as Dolly Levi

Bottom: Casey Craig as Barnaby, Shanna Palmer as Minnie Fay, Greg Allen as Cornelius, and Billie Wildrick as Irene

Photos by Jay Koh

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From This Author Robbie Wachs

Robbie is a California native, and has lived in Seattle for the past four years. His love for theatre began after seeing his High School's (read more...)

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