Let me rephrase that: I never took the chance to see the show. Lord knows there are ample opportunities to see Hello, Dolly! in local productions, but that's just the problem. I'm not a big fan of local productions, and the prospect of seeing some past-her-sell-date female performer, plucked from semi-obscurity, in what would very likely be a creaky production of an old war horse just never really piqued my interest.
Then I heard that my friends at the Goodspeed Opera House were putting on Hello, Dolly! this season with none other than Klea Blackhurst in the lead. I suddenly thought that it was time to give the stage Hello, Dolly! a chance. The Goodspeed always puts on first-rate productions, and I've been a huge fan of Blackhurst since the release of her marvelous 2001 solo album, Everything the Traffic Will Allow. The recording is from Blackhurst's cabaret show in which she pays homage to that First Lady of the American musical, Ethel Merman. (I mean, c'mon.) Blackhurst is a performer with immense charm, a strong voice, and sharp delivery, so I figured here was more than enough justification to finally take the Dolly plunge.
Fortunately, the star, the show, and the production for the most part do not disappoint. The Goodspeed Dolly is a qualified joy, due in no small part to the masterful way in which Klea Blackhurst takes charge of the stage. Her singing voice seemed a little bit fried; it wasn't clear whether she was ill or whether the role was taking its toll. But what Blackhurst lacked in vocal sustain, she more than made up for in charm and presence.
Somewhat less successful is Tony Sheldon as Horace Vandergelder. Sheldon, a Tony nominee for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, feels out of his element in here as the blustery, stentorian Vandergelder. His physical countenace felt too slight, his delivery too tentative to do the part full justice. But the rest of the cast more than makes up for Sheldon's lack of presence, particularly Ashley Brown, who is eminently appealing and clear-voiced as Irene Malloy. (Eileen Brennan, R.I.P.) Brown's delightfully bright-eyed take on Irene had me almost wishing that I had seen her as Mary Poppins on Broadway. However, my dreadful experience seeing the London production was more than sufficient to keep me away.
The Goodspeed Dolly is directed by Daniel Goldstein (who also directed the recent Broadway revival of Godspell), and for the most part Goldstein keeps the action moving at a frothy and energetic clip, despite a few dull patches. The choreography by Kelli Barclay felt at times transportive, although there were a few numbers -- ironically enough, the number "Dancing," in particular -- that felt a bit more earthbound.
And then there's the show itself, with its lovely and varied score by Jerry Herman (with a little uncredited help from Bob Merrill), and its efficient and humorous book by Michael Stewart. One thing that struck me about the show was the use of direct address, which is absent from the movie version. Of course, this comes directly from the source, The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder. Stewart has also maintained Wilder's farcical atmosphere and deliberately ridiculous logic, as when Ambrose tells Ermengarde that they have to win the Harmonia Gardens dance contest, because it's the only way of showing her uncle Horace that they mean business. Otherwise Ambrose and Ermengarde seem almost entirely unnecessary. It's surprising that they weren't cut entirely, as they were in the 1958 movie version of The Matchmaker.
Hello, Dolly! certainly has its share of delightfully witty and memorable touches. One of my favorites is when the court reporter says to Cornelius, "Mr. Hackl, I missed a few words back there. Could you start again at 'It Only...'", which leads to another chorus of "It Only Takes a Moment." The show may be somewhat corny, and may not have much in the depth department, but dammit if it doesn't know how to entertain. The title number may be a tad manufactured, but it works. In general, Dolly represents the best of the old-fashioned musicals, and it's always intrigued me that it came just one season before Fiddler on the Roof, which may have been old-fashioned in its approach, but it also pointed toward the innovative work that was to come.
The Goodspeed production of Hello, Dolly! has been extended through September 14th. Whether you're like me and haven't seen Dolly on stage before, or you've seen the show dozens of times, the Goodspeed production will likely make you wish that there were a restaurant that you could make a long-awaited return to, much to the delight of a handsome line of eager and athletic waiters. (Or maybe it's just me...)