Theater Review | Connecticut
‘Hello, Dolly!’ in Another Light
A Review of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ at Goodspeed Opera House
By SYLVIANE GOLD
Published: August 2, 2013
Thanks to the likes of Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey and Barbra Streisand, we tend to think of Dolly Levi as a flamboyant, stage-devouring diva. But before this exuberant busybody took to song and exclamatory punctuation in “Hello, Dolly!” she was simply “The Matchmaker” in the Thornton Wilder play — not low-key, exactly, but suited to more homespun character actresses like Ruth Gordon and Shirley Booth.
This softer, warmer heroine reappears in the “Hello, Dolly!” directed by Daniel Goldstein for Goodspeed Musicals, with the affable Klea Blackhurst in the title role. Best known for her Ethel Merman tribute show “Everything the Traffic Will Allow,” Ms. Blackhurst creates a down-to-earth Dolly who reminds us that Jerry Herman’s marvelous songs were originally meant to be sung not by the coyly glamorous Ms. Channing but by the forthrightly workaday Ms. Merman. It was only after the latter declined the part that the musical was imprinted with Ms. Channing’s bold signature. Ms. Merman finally got her turn, after Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Phyllis Diller and others took theirs — the original Broadway production ran through numerous Dollys over a span of nearly seven years. When it closed, in 1970, it was with Ms. Merman’s more naturalistic interpretation of a by-then fabled role.
Mr. Goldstein, who directed the recent Broadway revival of “Godspell,” has gone back to “The Matchmaker” not just for his conception of the leading lady but also for his production’s comedic pulse. He’s given Goodspeed’s “Dolly” a more farcical, less romantic edge, sometimes to the detriment of the overall piece. After all, seen in the harshest light — which is what you get when you turn from comedy to farce — these characters are a pretty unsympathetic bunch: a lying, scheming widow; a cruel, miserly widower; his utterly feckless clerks; his annoyingly lachrymose niece and her useless fiancé; and an attractive, much younger shop owner determined to marry the old skinflint for his money.
Ever since Gower Champion’s original, Tony-winning extravaganza, however, these ordinarily off-putting elements have been cleverly hidden behind barrels and barrels of charm and high spirits. To begin with, there’s the 1890s setting, a period known in the last century as the Gay Nineties and still evocative of happy opulence. It’s built right into the architecture of the giddily Victorian Goodspeed Opera House, and then skillfully reiterated on the stage by the production’s design team. Adrian W. Jones establishes the nostalgic mood with a sepia-toned show curtain depicting a parade along a flag-bedecked New York City street. Three arches mimicking cast iron span the stage and serve equally well for the musical’s stores, train station and deluxe restaurant. And Wade Laboissonniere dresses the cast in scrupulously detailed costumes bustling with color and elaborate trim. (Jason Lyons’s lights catch every glistening feather and spangled fringe.)
Then there’s the airtight construction of Michael Stewart’s book, alternating between intimate conversations and bring-down-the-house production numbers. In this “Dolly!” Kelli Barclay provides a stylish homage to Mr. Champion’s original choreography for strutting travelers in their Sunday clothes and galloping waiters in their white aprons. As Ms. Barclay proved two years ago with her tap sequences for “My One and Only,” the small Goodspeed stage can seem to expand to accommodate a canny choreographer deploying a talented ensemble.
In this case, the performers must do more than move and sing well. They have to generate enough good will to prevent the show’s cartoonish elements from sabotaging the sympathy audiences need to feel for Dolly and her entourage. When the thoroughly outwitted and outfoxed Horace Vandergelder closes “Hello, Dolly!” by exclaiming, “Wonderful woman!” we have to agree with him. And thanks to Ms. Blackhurst, and despite the knockabout tone of the proceedings, we do — it takes someone with her innate aplomb to chow down on corn on the cob in elbow-length white gloves without looking ridiculous.
As for Vandergelder, Tony Sheldon plays him as a likable rogue rather than a monster — when he kisses his cash register, he’s being funny, not repulsive. Broadway theatergoers will recall that Mr. Sheldon won a Tony nomination in 2011 for his stellar performance as the transsexual Bernadette in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” and it’s a treat to watch his Vandergelder with the knowledge that he could do an utterly convincing Dolly as well.
Ashley Brown, another refugee from Broadway, brings the silvery soprano and inextinguishable sweetness that brightened her Mary Poppins to the role of Irene Malloy, the husband-shopping milliner. And unlike some of the other cast members on the night I attended, she could be heard clearly above the orchestra. But this problem is easily remedied, and besides — you already know the words.