By Christopher Caggiano
The national tour of the smash-hit revival retains much of the charm of the original.
Hello, Dolly! Lyrics and music by Jerry Herman, book by Michael Stewart, based on Thornton Wilder’s 1938 farce The Merchant of Yonkers, which Wilder revised and retitled The Matchmaker in 1955. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Presented by Broadway in Boston at the Citizens Bank Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA, through August 25.
Shows like Hello, Dolly! are the reason I fell in love with musical theater in my ever more distant youth. The delightfully ridiculous story of one eventful day in the life of Dolly Gallagher Levi represents the pinnacle of the musical comedy form. Since Dolly premiered in 1964, musicals have gotten decidedly more serious, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But every now and then, it’s nice to take a break from the sturm und drang and cleanse the palate with a fluffy little trifle — a dumpling lighter than air, as it were.
With this most recent Hello, Dolly! revival, now on tour, director Jerry Zaks has crafted a clockwork production that seamlessly accommodates whoever stands at the center. With Bette Midler, the show became a star vehicle. With Donna Murphy, Dolly served as the frame for a first-rate actress. And, with Bernadette Peters, the show gave a world-class comedian a chance to shamelessly milk the evening for every conceivable laugh.
Broadway veteran Betty Buckley heads up the national tour, although after the current Boston stop she will be replaced by the redoubtable Carolee Carmello. Buckley as Dolly is a compelling mixture of the gravitas of Murphy and the comedic mugging of Peters. Buckley’s singing voice, which in the past has tended toward the shrill, has grown warmer with age, and fits quite comfortably within Dolly’s metier.
Zaks’ whipsaw staging isn’t quite as tight on tour as it was in New York. And some of the cast members seem to be overcompensating for the enormous size of the Opera House with some rather outsized line readings, in particular Colin LeMoine as Ambrose Kemper and Analisa Leaming as Irene Molloy. Perhaps this is a function of the fact that the tour has been out for a year now. After the Boston stop, a new slate of cast members will replace over a dozen of the current cast.
Fortunately, the show itself seems practically foolproof, with its efficient construction and continuous stream of crowd-pleasing numbers and sequences. With due respect to Zaks, the fact that the show has worked so well for so long is really a tribute to the expert showmanship of original director and choreographer Gower Champion.
The title number, as well as its iconic staging, may well have passed into the realm of cliche, but damned if it doesn’t all work like a charm. When Dolly appears at the top of the central staircase clad all in red to the sound of a burlesque-like swell from the brass section, you’d have to be made of stone not to feel a rush of pure joy.
Some unrestrained performances notwithstanding, the tour cast of Dolly is genuinely first-rate. Lewis J. Stadlen makes for an indelible Horace Vandergelder, although he relies a bit too much on vocal schtick. But Stadlen does manage to make Vandergelder’s seemingly abrupt transition at the end of the show from curmudgeon to big old softy considerably more believable.
Nic Rouleau is delightful as Cornelius, with a strong voice, terrific stage presence, and a sharp characterization throughout. Kristen Hahn as Minnie Fay manages to make the role memorable and distinct from the typical ditzy, squealing Minnie Fay. And the endearing Sean Burns as Barnaby supplies just the right amount of adorable.
[Full disclosure: My positive take on this production may have been in some way influenced by the presence of two beloved former students of mine in the cast: Morgan Kirner as Ermengarde and Alexandra Frohlinger in the ensemble. But I think I can say objectively — and without fear of contradiction — that these supremely talented young women are the physical embodiment of musical comedy.]
Although Hello, Dolly! is a welcome tonic for the divided age in which we find ourselves, the show nonetheless provides viewers with hints of social commentary. Toward the end of the show, Dolly opines about the power of money: “Yes, we’re all fools and we’re all in danger of destroying the world in our folly, but the surest way to keep us out of harm is to give us the four or five human pleasures that are our right in the world.” How much of our present discord would be resolved if more people took that message to heart?
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.