Before I write anything else, beg, borrow or steal to get to Goodspeed Opera House to see their fresh revival of the classic Jerry Herman Michael Stewart musical Hello, Dolly! I have seen several Dollys including Carol Channing (who owned the part,) Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye (who sang it best,) Pearl Bailey, and Ethel Merman who closed the original record-breaking run. I also saw Ruth Gordon’s legendary original production of The Matchmaker directed by Tyrone Guthrie with young Arthur Hill and Robert Morse!
The Goodspeed is a jewel box of a theater. This production, directed by Daniel Goldstein and choreographed by Kelli Barclay inspired by Gower Champion’s wonderful original staging, is reduced in scale but suffers nothing in inventiveness. The cast is led by the Klea Blackhurst as Dolly, Tony nominee Tony Sheldon (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) as Horace, Ashley Brown (Mary Poppins) as Irene Malloy, Spencer Moses as Cornelius, Jeremy Morse as Barnaby, Catherine Blades as Minnie, Brooke Shapiro as Ermengarde, and tall Charles MacEacherin as Ambrose. One word can describe everyone’s work: Joy! I have never seen a more joyful production. And the joy spreads out to the audience with several ensemble numbers (“Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before the Parade Passes By”) staged in the aisles and on the upper level. All the production’s design work is first rate! Blackhurst’s entrance is from the back of the house, handing out her cards to audience members (including “uke” and “banjo” instruction — an inside joke about Blackhurst’s own skills!) Blackhurst is well known for her Ethel Merman cabaret show but she is not imitating Merman in this part. She takes her natural warmth and infuses Dolly with a wonderful sense of humanity and cheer. And when Blackhurst dances with the wonderful singer dancers in the ensemble numbers her feet as nimble as Ginger Rogers were!
The other special thing about this production is that it is really about love! You really believe the love stories of the four different couples. Brown sings gloriously in her beautiful voice the first ballad in the show, “Ribbons Down My Back” and that set has a backdrop of shelves of ribbons and fabrics! Brown and Moses have a wonderful romantic sexual attraction evident in each of their scenes together! Morse, who is a great nimble athletic dancer, is a perfect match for Blades who nails all her laugh lines! The quartet’s second act opener “Elegance” is in perfect sync and yet displays the special physical talents of each of them. It’s a great piece of choreography and direction including a hysterically funny finish!
Sheldon is a strong masculine presence, so unlike David Burns or Max Showalter (or Walter Matthau in the film version) so you really believe at the end when Blackhurst nails him that there will be a strong sexual future in their second marriages, not only based upon wealth, but upon respect and love!
The big numbers? Well, the parade begins with Sheldon banging a drum in the aisle, and the ensemble marching across the stage. Blackhurst does her monologue about asking for a sign and when Brown delivers her absolutely sincere key line that is the sign, Blackhurst glows and begins “Before the Parade Passes By” softly and movingly, then as the parade appears on stage she sings stronger and stronger. There is no runway around the orchestra pit but you don’t miss it — Blackhurst is energized and galvanizes the audience until she joins the parade! In the second act those handsome tall athletic dancers do the “Waiters’ Gallop” leaping and juggling multiple dishes and glasses under the witty direction of Jack Doyle’s Rudolf (with Fritz Feld mustache and gestures!) The screened tables for the quartet and Vandergelder are at opposite sides of the stage and for once, with all the galloping waiters the wallet exchange works very well. When Blackhurst makes her entrance in that sparkling red dress the theater audience stands up and applauds with the waiters! And her singing of the title song makes great use of addressing each waiter with a personal memory, especially when she comments “lost some weight” to one of them. Again, her dancing is lithe and nimble and the height of all the men around her is a great theatrical picture!
The heart of the production is in some of the quiet moments. In the courtroom scene which always seemed a little forced and over the top with Charles Nelson Reilly and Eileen Brennan. Moses, with his beautiful voice, soars with emotion, and even goes into the audience to sing to the people in the first rows those wonderful lyrics of “It Only Takes A Moment.” Blackhurst is pantomime funny taking her time to finish her meal before getting up to defend him and she is strong and believable in convincing the zany judge and clerk that all should be acquitted because of their love. Sheldon’s reactions in this scene show us his transformation and back in his shop in Yonkers the scenes between Sheldon and Blackhurst are beautifully played.
This is Goodspeed Opera House’s 50th Anniversary and I hope this production of “Hello, Dolly!” (which has been extended until September 15th) has a big future life! It deserves to move to Broadway if any of the musical theaters (which are all booked) opens up. Congratulations to all involved! Call 860-873-8968 to purchase tickets as soon as possible. More information is at www.goodspeed.org