Theater Review: HELLO, DOLLY! (National Tour)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 25, 2018

in Theater-Chicago,Tours

IT ONLY TAKES A MUSICAL

To start with, let’s agree to never say “Goodbye, Dolly.” Thornton Wilder’s genius for the common touch isn’t just a golden legacy in Our Town or The Skin of Our Teeth, two perfect comedies of life. There’s almost as much warm wisdom in The Matchmaker, Wilder’s craftily-plotted 1955 mating romp that Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman transformed into a 1964 musical gem called Hello, Dolly!

Now on a national tour, Jerry Zaks’ four-time Tony Award-winning best revival festoons Chicago’s Oriental Theatre with a cumulatively delightful restoration of this infectious delight. Its chief calling card, besides its irrepressible headliner, is its sumptuous recreation of 1885 Yonkers and New York City and its historical boulevards (14th and 42nd Street, a hatshop on Water Street, a courtroom on Centre Street, and especially the posh Harmonia Gardens restaurant in the Battery).

Famed designer Santo Loquasto creates a jewel-box/picture-book nostalgic tour-de-force radiant with resplendent Victoriana: Its filigreed proscenium frames period postcards illustrating the Gilded Age’s gorgeous ornamentations. Its rich reliance on extravagantly elegant props and costumes evokes a world long gone, including an entire train for the Hudson River Railway.

These near three hours display spunk to spare, even heart. That’s palpable to poignant in Tony-winner Betty Buckley’s beautifully modulated and indomitable Dolly Gallagher Levi. At 71, the effortlessly smiling, wonderfully agile Buckley is an unsinkable powerhouse to make you forget, reluctantly, Carol Channing or, eagerly, Barbra Streisand. Desperate to “rejoin the human race,” this unmerry widow earns her marquee billing, a gold-digging fortune-huntress who dabbles in everything (“I Put My Hand In”) and practices payback like a Borgia (“So Long Dearie”).

Most of all, Dolly exists to make life flourish, not fester, and her chosen fertilizers are money and matchmaking. This nurturing Earth Mother gardens people and they thrive. Happily, Buckley has spent a lifetime assembling the charismatic ingredients for a role that repays every stage minute. Marvelously, everyone here rises to her grand occasion.

The genius of this musical is to make it just cartoonish and corny enough to lift the laughter to the upper balcony but not have it be too insistent on its “live more than a little” messaging. Above all, Hello, Dolly! delights in first and second chances — first for stock boy Barnaby, chief clerk Cornelius and milliner’s assistant Minnie Fay, second for Dolly and Irene Molloy, whose late husbands were their best loves, and especially for crusty burgher Horace Vandergelder.

As described by husband-hunting Dolly, this feed-and-grain tycoon, “the well-known unmarried half-a-millionaire,” is ripe for conquest, despite never having respected a woman until Dolly tames him. Growling, gravelly but ultimately melting like a glacier, Lewis J. Stadlen plays flinty Horace much like the film version’s Walter Matthau, grudgingly giving in to the life force personified by Buckley’s hungry, ardent, shiksa-yenta Dolly. (He also gets a “new” number to open the second act, the previously cut “Penny in My Pocket.”)

The cunning casting continues with tall and short Nic Rouleau and Jess LeProtto as the lovable goofball truants who run off to the future Big Apple, Analisa Leaming’s worldly-wise but sensation-seeking Irene Molloy, Kristen Hahn’s impish screwball Minnie, Garrett Hawe’s plucky Ambrose Kemper, and Morgan Kirner as the always hysterical Ermengarde. Maybe they’re impecunious, but they’ve got “Elegance.”

Robert Billig’s orchestra rediscovers the glories of Herman’s celebratory score, its joys ranging from an ebullient dance contest to a full-scale parade in lower Manhattan. No one has more fun than the wrenchingly athletic waiters dancing up a dining ballet in the splendid second act. Warren Carlyle’s choreography would do Gower Champion proud as “Before the Parade Passes By” threatens to strut itself right into The Music Man. Loquasto’s abundant, tintype-accurate costumes (this chorus changes clothes a lot) perfectly complement his sweetly suggestive scenery. A prettier show has seldom graced the boards.

Wilder and Herman make a wonderful, seemingly inevitable, combination, much superior, as Goodman Theatre’s recent revival unpleasantly displayed, to its origin The Matchmaker. (Maybe its predecessor, The Merchant of Yonkers, was better…)

Perkily presented with Wilders’ disarming delight in apostrophizing the audience, Mrs. Levi’s tart survival knowledge blends beautifully with the unashamed sentiment of “Dancing,” “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” and the inexpressibly exuberant title number, a showtopper as much as showstopper. So much that life fails to encourage, theater redeems. Seldom more winningly than in Hello, Dolly!

photos by Julieta Cervantes

Hello, Dolly!
national tour
presented by Broadway in Chicago
at the Oriental Theatre until November 17, 2018
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit Broadway in Chicago

tour continues through August 25, 2019
for dates, cities, and tickets, visit Dolly

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