The year was 1964 when composer-lyricist Jerry Herman, playwright Michael Stewart and director-choreographer Gower Champion adapted Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker into one of the high points of what we now look back on as the golden age of the musical theater.
The show, of course, was Hello, Dolly!, which became, for a while at least, the longest-running production ever on Broadway. Closely associated with its original star, Carol Channing, the show was only revived whenever she decided to tour with it. Until last year, when it was dusted off and remounted with Bette Midler playing meddling yenta Dolly Gallagher Levi, who decides to start living again and remarry.
Midler was surely the reason that this Hello, Dolly! revival became a hot ticket, but as the touring production at the Kravis Center this week – headlined by Betty Buckley – demonstrates, the show remains a solidly constructed crowd-pleaser, fresh and full of entertainment nearly 55 years after it was first created.
For those who insist that they don’t write them like they used to, here is evidence for your argument. Herman was still fairly new to Broadway in 1964, but Dolly may be his most infectious, tuneful score, filled with such melodic gems as “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “It Only Takes a Moment” and that incomparable earworm, the title song. It you are not humming something from this show as you leave the Kravis, have your hummer checked.
Nor did the revival’s director Jerry Zaks or choreographer Warren Carlyle feel the need to diverge much from Champion’s original staging and dance steps. Dancing, Dolly’s ballroom primer for the two Yonkers store clerks on an adventure in New York City, is a textbook example of how to build and build a gossamer production number. And how could you improve on “The Waiters’ Galop,” a precision leapfest among the servers at the posh Harmonia Gardens restaurant, all atwitter over Dolly’s imminent arrival?
As is often the case, Stewart’s adaptation does not get the credit it deserves for moving the story along so efficiently, for such well-crafted comedy scenes and for such touching moments of heartfelt drama. He channels the spirit of Wilder, preserving his direct address to the audience monologues and his pithy, sage one-liners.
Buckley is fine as Dolly, but hardly as brassy or larger-than-life as many of her predecessors in the role. She takes a softer, more whimsical approach, which works and leaves room for a classic vaudevillian like Lewis J. Stadlen, as Yonkers’ hay and feed “half a millionaire,” Horace Vandergelder, to take prominence in the production. It doesn’t add much to the show, but he inherits a “new” second act opening solo, “Penny in My Pocket,” an ode to compound interest that was cut before Broadway in the original production. Groucho-esque Stadlen is a veteran of the role, having played Vandergelder opposite Lee Roy Reams at The Wick a few seasons ago.
Nic Rouleau plays it relatively straight as head clerk Cornelius Hackl, ceding the comedy to Jess LeProto as his sidekick Barnaby Tucker, a very athletic, if reluctant, dancer. And Analisa Leaming makes a lovely Irene Molloy, the milliner who hates hats, scoring with a wistful “Ribbons Down My Back.”
The production design has a consciously retro look, from Santo Loquasto’s period urban backdrops to his vibrant pastel costumes for the ensemble. Natasha Katz lights the show with musical comedy brilliance and Larry Hochman’s orchestrations are also penny-bright.
And never underestimate the power of a woman in a red dress and headdress descending a red staircase. Like Dolly Levi herself, it is so nice to have a first-rate production of Hello, Dolly! back where it belongs.
HELLO, DOLLY!, Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday. $33-$105. Call 561-832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.