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Hello, Dolly!

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, Book by Michael Stewart

based on the play The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder

Directed by Eric Schaeffer

Choreographed by Karma Camp

Co-Produced by Ford’s Theatre Society and Signature Theatre

Ford’s Theatre, Washington, DC

March 15th, 2013

fordstheatre

I recently had the opportunity to return to my old stomping grounds, the Washington DC area, on a family trip.  Despite having grown up there and having participated in countless school field trips to various Nation’s Capital attractions, I had never managed to make it to the historic Ford’s Theatre until this latest trip.  Most famous for its connection to Abraham Lincoln, the theatre is now both a historical attraction (with an excellent museum) and a working theatre hosting several productions each year.

This is a smaller production of Hello Dolly! than usual.  The show has been known for elaborate, colorful costumes, a large cast and lots of spectacle, such as the title number with Dolly descending a grand staircase accompanied by a large chorus of waiters. The last time I saw this show was in 2007 at the Muny, a venue which seems the very definition of “larger than life”, to the point where in comparison, a production like this might be akin to producing the show in someone’s basement.  Still, it’s a glorious “basement” and the ideal setting for this slightly re-imagined production. In this version, the cast is smaller, the spectacle is brought down and the costumes, while still beautifully made, are more muted.  The emphasis here is more on character than spectacle, and for the most part, it works.

This is the classic story of widowed matchmaker and professional meddler Dolly Gallagher Levi (Nancy Opel), who aims to arrange a marriage for Yonkers “half-millionaire”, the curmudgeonly Horace Vandergelder (Edward Gero) without letting him know that her intended bride for him is herself.  Dolly also has a few other schemes up her sleeve, involving several people in Horace’s circle, including his chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Gregory Maheu) and young assistant Barnaby Tucker (Zachary Collona), who go on an adventure of their own involving widowed hatshop owner Irene Molloy (Tracy Lynn Olivera) and her young employee Minnie Faye (Lauren Williams).  All of these characters spend an eventful day in New York City, where Dolly’s influence is shown to be far-reaching, and where the various characters pursue their dreams and get more than they bargained for in various ways.

Opel is a wistful, engaging Dolly.  In contrast to previous interpretations that have emphasized the character’s hyper-competence, Opel brings the character’s sense of regret to the forefront. She has excellent chemistry with Edward Gero as Horace and has handles most of her numbers very well. Her highlights musically are the opening sequence (“I Put My Hand In”), “Motherhood”, the title song and “So Long, Dearie”, which is her tour-de-force as far as I’m concerned.  It was such a strong moment for her, and Gero’s reactions to her were perfectly appropriate.  All of these numbers that have her interacting with other characters, and the chemistry is strong.  Gero is a humanized Horace—stubborn and set in his ways, but convincingly changing throughout the show and warming up to Dolly.  Together, Opel and Gero make their growing relationship both engaging and believable.

As celebrated as the character of Dolly is,  my favorite story line in this show has always been the B-plot, with Horace and Barnaby going out on the town with Irene Malloy and Minnie Fay, and all the players do well here.  Maheu is an earnest, charming Cornelius and his chemistry with Olivera’s Irene  is striking, particularly in what is probably the best staging of “It Only Takes a Moment” I’ve ever seen.  Olivera is in very strong voice as Irene, delivering an excellent rendition of “Ribbons Down My Back”. Collona brings an amiable energy and strong dancing to the role of Barnaby, and Williams  turns in an engagingly funny performance as Minnie Faye.  These four performers make the most of their scenes together, and numbers like the hilarious “Motherhood” and  the charming “Elegance”are delightful highlights of the show, also with their inventive staging and well-executed choreography.  This show has a very strong cast all around, as well, and a delightful ensemble, particularly in regard to dancing.

I liked Adam Koch’s simple but effective train station set, in muted colors to set the mood of the times, and with wheeled luggage racks that are reused as set pieces throughout. The costumes by Wade Laboissonniere are extremely well-done as well.  The colors may not be eye-poppingly bright as in some other productions of this show, but all of the costumes are exquisitely made with rich fabrics and patterns and very much evocative of the era.   I also loved the strong choreography, most notably in the energetic “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and in the title song, which isn’t as flashy as previous productions, but is extremely well-staged and performed with a lot of style and class by Opel and the ensemble of four waiters.

I was glad to be able to witness this remarkable joint production by the Ford’s Theatre Society and the DC area’s much-acclaimed Signature Theatre, and the production is well-realized and directed by Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer.  It’s a different Dolly than audiences may be expecting, but the experiment in bringing this show down to scale pays off in highlighting the atmosphere of the 1890’s and the relationships between the characters. This production is a treat for the eyes, ears, and heart, and well worth checking out before it closes in May.

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