Say hello to ‘Dolly’ at the Goodspeed

By Don Bourret - ReminderNews
East Haddam - posted Mon., Jul. 29, 2013
Contributed
Klea Blackhurst stars in 'Hello, Dolly' at Goodspeed Opera House, now through Sept. 14. Photo by Diane Sobolewski of Goodspeed Musicals. - Contributed Photo

Let’s have this out right now. I am a huge fan of musical theater and Goodspeed Musicals in particular, and I have thoroughly enjoyed most productions I’ve seen there over the years. That said, neither my wife - who tends to be less enthusiastic about musical theater in general - nor I have ever enjoyed a show more than “Hello, Dolly,” running at the Goodspeed Opera House now through Sept. 14.

From the moment Dolly Levi trots down the aisle, chattering non-stop about the importance of and her skills at bringing lonely people together in love connections while handing out her omnipresent business cards among the audience from a limitless supply in the world’s biggest handbag, you will have a smile on your face for the duration of the show, except for the hundreds of times you will burst out laughing. I saw the show in the ’60s with Carol Channing and remember really liking it, but I had forgotten that this is one funny, funny show - the very definition of musical comedy.

The story may be familiar to most. Dolly is a widow and matchmaker in 1890’s Yonkers whose current project is to hook up Horace Vandergelder, the “half-millionaire” owner of the local feed store, with Irene Molloy, owner of a New York hat shop. But Dolly, as she lets us know in her countless asides to the audience and entreaties for guidance to her late husband, Ephraim Levi, has set her own cap for the hapless Horace. Concurrently, Vandergelder’s two overworked and underpaid clerks, Cornelius Hackle and Barnaby Tucker, have decided to break the bonds of their shackles for a night and find the high life in the big city, vowing at least to kiss a girl before the night is over. In the second act, all parties wind up at the Harmonia Gardens, New York’s most elegant and expensive restaurant, where, and this is not a spoiler, farce reigns and love hilariously conquers all.

Adapted from Thorton Wilder’s acclaimed play, “The Matchmaker,” “Hello, Dolly” premiered on Broadway in January 1964, just months after JFK’s assassination. With Channing originating the title role, the show ran for almost 3,000 performances and won 10 Tony Awards. In addition to Gower Champion and Michael Stewart’s brilliant staging, Jerry Herman’s rousing music and Channing’s luminous personality, that production may also have owed much of its popularity to its feel-good nostalgic return to the good old gay-90s days as a welcome diversion from the tragic current events. The same might be said of this winning revival today.

The music holds a place of honor on any list of great American musical scores: “It Takes a Woman,” “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “Ribbons Down My Back,” “Before The Parade Passes By,” “Elegance,” “It Only Takes a Moment,” “So Long, Dearie,” and, of course, the unforgettable “Hello, Dolly.”  And the two-dozen performers (how do they fit so many on Goodspeed’s tiny stage?) are dazzling and clearly having a ball entertaining us.

Tony Sheldon (winner of a Best Actor Tony Award for “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) is Vandergelder, a powerful baritone and a perfect foil for Dolly as a hapless curmudgeon who melts before our eyes as her wiles circle relentlessly to entrap him. Ashley Brown (Irene Molloy) has a commanding soprano voice with beauty and charm to spare. Spencer Moses’s quirky Cornelius Hackle (played in the movie by Michael Crawford in his gawky pre-“Phantom” days) is an ungainly and unlikely romantic swain for Irene Molloy until he blossoms in the throes of first love and woos us all with “It Only Takes a Moment.” The showstopper is the “Waiters’ Galop,” as the waiters at Harmonia Gardens, led by Jack Doyle’s Head Waiter, leap and tumble and careen and juggle and fly about the stage in ecstatic anticipation of Dolly’s arrival. The applause lasted almost as long as the number. These guys could have their own show.

There have been many Dollys after Channing, including Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Martha Raye, Pearl Bailey (in an all-black version with Cab Calloway) and Ethel Merman, who was the producers’ first choice originally but was too exhausted after her run in “Gypsy” to take on a new role. Although I am certain all these ladies were superb, I am equally certain none surpassed Klea Blackhurst, who in this production makes Dolly her own, in turn self-assured, vulnerable, compassionate, hilarious, with spot-on comic timing that regularly drags order up from the pit of chaos. And what a voice!

Highest kudos all around to director Daniel Goldstein, choreographer Kelli Barclay, scenic designer Adrian Jones, costume designer Wade Laboissonniere, and lighting designer Jason Lyons, as well as the entire Goodspeed behind-the-scenes staff led by Michael Price for adapting this prototypical big-stage extravaganza to their intimate venue and, in my opinion, making it all the more enjoyable.

“Hello, Dolly” was extended two additional weeks before it even opened and now plays through Sept. 14. It runs two and a half hours with a 15-minute intermission and is family friendly. Younger children may not get every joke, but will love all the hijinks.  Tickets are available through the box office at 860-873-8668 or on-line at goodspeed.org.

Don’t let this parade pass you by!


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