Hello Dolly! tends to come along right when you need it to.
The original Broadway production opened in the shadow of the JFK assassination in the 1960s and starred Carol Channing, who went on to play the titular role in several Broadway revivals. The role was most closely associated with Channing, who won a Tony award for her performance, until a blockbuster revival opened on Broadway three years ago with Bette Midler as the meddling widow with her eye on a new husband. With music and lyrics by the late, great, Jerry Herman, and book by Michael Stewart, Hello Dolly! is that rare musical theater treat that seems to get better with age based not on how well it holds up, but because it doesn’t even attempt to.
Taking place in Yonkers, New York, at the beginning of the 20th century, the show is a veritable feast for the eyes, ears and hearts (forgive me for being hokey, but it’s been a week), with a sensational cast and production values that haven’t lost a step in transferring to the road. In fact, the tour playing the Providence Performing Arts Center thru Sunday is as good as anything you’ll see on the Great White Way.
The musical is an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, and it follows Dolly Levi as she tries arranging a marriage for herself with Horace Vandergelder, one of the wealthiest men in Yonkers, and the employer of Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, two clerks who are mostly confined to Horace’s Hay and Feed store. Horace’s niece Ermengarde wants to marry a young man named Ambrose Kemper, but he disapproves of the match because Ambrose is an artist. The musical makes swift work of getting this cast of characters to the big city, where Cornelius and Barnaby meet their respective love interests, the widow Irene Molly (there an awful lot of widows around for such a toe-tapping show) and her shop assistant, Minnie Fay.
It all leads to a run-in at the Harmonia Gardens where acrobatic waiters create a blinding build-up to one of the most iconic entrances in theater as Dolly makes her way down a grand staircase singing the title song in a fabulous red dress and headpiece.
Director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle staged a love letter to musical theater that is unapologetically glitzy, glamorous and downright gorgeous. The show hinges on having a Dolly who is equal parts singer and comedienne, and, frankly, you need a little star power if you’re really going to pull it off. Luckily, the second round of this tour snagged one of the most consistently excellent performers on Broadway — Carolee Carmello. Having seen Midler (and her replacement, Bernadette Peters) take on the role, I was struck by how much depth Carmello brought to the part by letting Dolly’s drive mask a real heartrending desire to get back into the world again. As Horace, John Bolton is more crafty than crotchety, and the adjustment helps create an effective chemistry between him and Carmello.
The two lead a cast full of across-the-board excellence, including Daniel Beeman as Cornelius Hackl, Sean Burns as Barnaby Tucker, and Jenny Hickman as the best Irene Molloy I’ve seen yet (Hickman spoke with Motif prior to the opening and revealed that she stepped into the role for the Providence run after over half a year as understudy). Typically it’s a thankless supporting role, but Hickman really makes it shine.
It’s true that the production embraces its fluffy nature, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t moving. In fact, my eyes welled up a few times at the show’s sincerity, and considering innocence is often the hardest thing to play, the cast should be commended for their commitment to never commenting on their character’s wide-eyed enthusiasm.
According to just about everybody these days, people are looking for a little bit of escapism that’ll put a smile on your face, and if that’s true, you need to go see Dolly and let her arrange one for you.
Hello Dolly! plays thru Sun\, Mar 8 at the Providence Performing Arts Center. 220 Weybosset St, PVD. Reserve tickets by visiting ppacri.org or by calling 401-421-ARTS (2787).