Dolly Gallagher Levi is at last back where she belongs: center stage at the Goodspeed Opera House and ready to entertain a new generation of theatergoers and bring back fond memories for a generation raised on the original cast album and lucky enough to have caught Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Phyllis Diller, Pearl Bailey or any of the other actresses who successfully tackled this classic role.
While director Daniel Goldstein and his wildly inventive choreographer Kelli Barclay demonstrate a definite respect for the Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book) musical, they offer their own unique imprint as well, not only to accommodate the challenges posed by the size of the Goodspeed stage but to showcase the commendable talents of their star, the wondrous New York cabaret stylist Klea Blackhurst, as well as to assure that the show evidences an energy and a charm suitable for contemporary audiences.
But before I continue, I must issue a friendly alert based on another lyric from the score: "Dolly will never go away again." Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and this production of "Hello, Dolly," even though it has been extended, will be exiting the Goodspeed on September 14. So if you want to catch a performance, and I can't imagine any sane reason why you would not, call the East Haddam theater now.
After seeing the Goodspeed remarkable production of "Mame" last season, I didn't think the Goodspeed could do similar justice to another Jerry Herman show. What a delightful surprise to discover that Goldstein and team have surpassed all expectations by creating an evening that is luscious to look at, thrilling to listen to, delicious to laugh with and genuinely exhilarating to experience.
Note that when I said that this "Dolly" needed to be rethought for the Goodspeed stage I didn't say "tiny." That's because Goldstein and set designer Adrian W. Jones have made the stage appear spacious, not only through an elevated ramp but by making the stage seem considerably deeper than it really is. The detailed, yet flexible set itself, captures the look and feel of the 1890's, whether we're in a hay and feed store in Yonkers, a millinery shop in the New York City or in the most elegant restaurant on 14th Street, the Harmonia Gardens. Jones' overriding scenic concept suggests a classic New York railroad station in the style of the original Penn Station, with its ironwork and high ceiling. The design concept can easily be modified at a second's notice, as when two wooden showcases from the feed store are suddenly put on their sides and become the benches for a vivid train ride into the City.
The set design also allows choreographer Barclay to create any number of thrilling dances that keep the show in constant motion, as when an initially awkward dance lesson spills over into the streets of New York and area denizens join in or when the title character encounters the ebullient participants in the 14th Street Parade. Although Barclay doesn't have a Broadway sized stage on which to work her wonders, she has a cadre of very agile dancers who can move between and around each other flawlessly while incorporating an acrobatic feel into nearly every movement. This is never more apparent than in yet another of the show's high points, the "Waiters' Gallop," in which the tuxedo clad servers of the Harmonia Gardens spin and jump while juggling, hurling and balancing plates, glasses and the dinner's entrees (kabobs, anyone?). These energetic guys get an appropriately rousing ovation, only to be called back into service a few moments later to greet our leading lady as she descends the staircase into the dining establishment.
The audience is totally in love with Blackhurst by this time. As a performer, she's less reminiscent of Channing than Merman, for whom Herman and producer David Merrick envisioned the part. Blackhurst, who occasionally performs a Merman tribute in New York cabarets, comes off not as a steamroller but as a decidedly determined yet somewhat lonley woman, who's anxious to put the memory of her devoted late husband behind her and move on, preferably into a marriage with the wealthy feed store owner, Horace Vandergelder. From the moment that Blackhurst enters from the back of theater passing out Dolly's business cards to various audience members, she does have the audience eating right out of her hand. She does have a delicious way with a punch line and Blackhurst revels in Dolly's machinations with Vandergelder. She's a terrific singer who can belt when necessary and yet be plaintive and vulnerable when acknowledging her loneliness. It's a perfect match between performer and character which allows the entire production to soar.
Blackhurst is in excellent company, as Goldstein has cast powerful actor/singers in three top roles. Australian Tony Sheldon, who recently completed a world tour of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," provides a formidable match as Vandergelder. Sheldon offers an imposing, well-tailored image of an often-gruff businessman who acts like a robber baron wannabee, while revealing the limitations and vulnerabilities that keep him anchored in Yonkers. In the second act, he conveys Horace's foolishness and exasperation fully and believably.
Goldstein's production also boasts a particularly stellar Irene Malloy, the widowed milliner whose marriage, this production implies, was not entirely happy and may have even been hurtful. The vibrant, lovely Ashley Brown, who originated the part of Mary Poppins in the recent Broadway production, gives Irene a reluctant resignation that she gradually but eagerly discards while unexpectedly falling in love with Vandergelder's chief clerk, Cornelius Hackl. Brown's extraordinary voice adds a special poignancy to "Ribbons Down My Back," as she decides to leave her widow's weeds behind and open herself to the possibilities of the world, adds resonance and depth to her later duet "It Only Takes a Moment."
The lanky Spencer Moses cuts a fun figure as Cornelius, as the loyal, but long put-upon clerk, who decides for once to defy his boss and head to the big city for an adventure. His Cornelius is enthusiastic yet naïve, convincingly depicting the young man's excitement at discovering a soul mate in Irene Malloy. He's equally good in sharing his trepidations about maintaining the pretense that he's a wealthy man about town. As a result, we share his emotions in a later scene as he sings to a judge about his joy in falling in love.
Brown and Moses are neatly complemented by their younger comrades in arms, with Jeremy Morse as Barnaby Tucker, the teenage clerk who accompanies Cornelius on his adventure, and Catherine Blades as Irene's young assistant Minnie Fay. Morse wonderfully reveals the young clerk's eager innocence, while Blades offers a crackerjack portrait of a young woman ready to experience the more sophisticated New York around her. The four share a sweet, enticing number that opens the second act, "Elegance," that firms up in song and action the bond between the couples. Charles McEachern and Brooke Shapiro are a somewhat underwhelming Ambrose Kemper and Vandergelder's niece, Ermengarde, who Dolly is secretly helping to elope. Between McEachern's vacant performance and Shapiro's constant shrieking, they are not a couple you want to root for, let alone hope to keep seeing on stage. I wish they had been made just a bit more endearing.
What also helps make this "Dolly" so eye-dazzling enjoyable are Wade Laboissonniere's stunning costumes. There must not have been an available hanger left in Goodspeed's costume shop once all of Laboissonniere's designs were completed. The men's costumes consist primarily of three piece vested suits in colorful plaids and tweeds, with shirts and the vests selected for superlative color contrasts. The women's dresses are similarly, if not more, layered, with suggestions of bustles and undergarments, with appropriate coats and elaborate hats. Then there are the black and white suits and outfits of the waiters, the sashes worn by women in the parade, the variety of outfits worn by the diverse rabble appearing in court and, of course, the magnificent bright red dress worn by Dolly as she makes her triumphant return to the Harmonia Gardens.
As typical at Goodspeed productions, musical director Michael O'Flaherty and his seven fellow musicians make the score sound as if it's being played by an orchestra three times the size, as they deliver a rich, fulfilling arrangement of Dan DeLange's marvelous orchestrations.
And let's not forget that this "Dolly" is one of the funniest shows you will ever see, musical or not. The comedy should satisfy all kinds of tastes, from those who appreciate clever word play to those who enjoy a dash of slapstick and tomfoolery, from those who like gags that turn the conventions of theater on their heads to those who welcome a scathing turn of the eyebrow or judgmental glance. It's also quite a touching show, as Dolly grapples with the memory of her late husband Ephraim or Cornelius discovers a backbone and devil may care attitude that frees him to enjoy the world around him. Indeed, just as Goldstein and Barclay keep their production spinning and moving, "Dolly" is at its heart a story of people trying to move on, with a bit of reluctance and fear, into more fulfilling lives.
And you'll move too, if you want to grasp up some of the ever-more-scarce tickets to this wonderful production.
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