Followers of comedy musical theatre must surely be in heaven. This week sees the opening of not one but two professional, high-production value comedy musicals in the valley, both from the same era, both with a nostalgic turn-of-the-last-century setting and both from the showbiz school of they-don’t-write-’em-like-that-anymore musicals.
The second production we’ll get to later in the week. The first is the Broadway behemoth Hello, Dolly!, the musical that literally begs its leading lady to promise she’ll never go away again. And she never has. Since winning 10 Tony Awards after the show’s 1964 opening, Hello, Dolly! has endured revival after revival, along with countless dinner and community theatre productions, not only across the country but also around the world.
Originally designed as a star vehicle for Ethel Merman (who turned it down, but eventually played the lead some six years later in 1970), the widowed Dolly Levi quickly became the signature theatrical role of Carol Channing’s career. Casting powerhouse Bette Midler as the bold, brassy, meddling matchmaker in the 2017 revival was inspired.
Now comes the national touring production to ASU Gammage in Tempe, performing until January 13, treating audiences with Broadway veteran Betty Buckley as Dolly, bringing with her a surprisingly different sense of pathos to the role. That unique style and sound that was Carol Channing’s and the confidently aggressive nature of both Ethel Merman and Bette Midler all worked exactly right for different reasons when playing the New Yorker with a business card for every occasion, but Buckley is a better actor. Her performance as Norma Desmond on both the London and Broadway stage was a knockout, and here as Dolly Levi she brings a similar level of vulnerability, even loneliness to the role not often seen, while retaining all the over-the-top glamour that makes Hello, Dolly! so continually popular.
The show’s farcical plot of a chaotic day in the life of the matchmaker hired to find a wife for Yonkers’ most famous half a millionaire is usually attributed to Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, but it goes back further. It began with an 1835 John Oxenford English farce called A Day Well Spent, which was developed into an Austrian farce in 1842 called He’ll Have Himself a Good Time, then later turned into a 1938 American comedy by Wilder titled The Merchant of Yonkers. Wilder then rewrote his own work in 1955 and titled it The Matchmaker, bringing us back to Hello, Dolly! Yet Dolly! was not the show’s original name. Among the many song cuts and early cast changes made to the production during its out-of-town tryouts, the show’s original title was the wordy Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman. It is thought that the re-titling was made when producer David Merrick heard Louis Armstrong’s take on the Hello, Dolly! song from the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant scene. In commercial terms, perhaps one of the best decisions ever.
This 2017 Jerry Zaks directed revival doesn’t update the show to better reflect a more cynical or relatable 2019 attitude, instead, it goes back to the production’s musical comedy vaudeville roots and enlarges upon them. Presented on the Gammage stage within its own marquee-style lighted proscenium arch, complete with plush variety/musical hall curtains, this Hello, Dolly! takes the vaudeville theme of stringing a series of high-energy, broadly performed, farcical sketches, often against painted backdrops, each culminating with a song in the tradition of an old fashioned variety show, but holding them together to make one common story. It all ends in the What’s Up, Doc tradition of screwball comedy where the ensemble line up in a courtroom ready to face the judge (Timothy Shew) and answer for the farcical shenanigans that occurred throughout the day.
Like the Victorian music hall acts of England and the Burlesque comedians of Broadway, there’s a point where each of the leads does their shtick directly to the audience, acknowledging we’re there. When Dolly makes her initial entrance, she’s pointing directly at us and sharing her thoughts; when love-struck Cornelius Hackl (Nic Rouleau) defends himself before the judge, he turns to the audience looking for support “no matter where you’re sitting” as he points to those in the upper balcony; at the beginning of Act Two, Horace Vandergelder (Lewis J. Stadlen) performs Penny in My Pocket in front of those plush music hall curtains like a comedic vaudevillian veteran of the last century.
Jerry Herman’s score, one of his earliest, is considered his most memorable, which it is, and there’s a good reason. You remember it because the principal melody of each tune is repeated over and over. In fact, the numbers don’t really have a chorus in the traditional sense; the whole catchy song is the chorus.
By the end of Put On Your Sunday Clothes, Before The Parade Passes By, and the title tune Hello, Dolly! because of their repetition and the ensuring encore, you’ll already know the words without having to think about them. Each reverberates in your head like an earworm long after the number has finally completed. But they’re sung with such exuberance backed by Larry Hochman’s outstanding orchestrations and performed by Warren Carlyle’s ceaselessly energetic and often humorous choreography – great use of the semi-circular runway that juts out on the stage within the stage – they’re all thoroughly seductive.
Complete with Santo Loquasto’s detailed sets – Vendergelder’s is all shelves and artifacts like a second-hand store stuffed with knickknacks that’s fun to explore – and the pastel-colored late 19th to early 20th century costume designs of the ensemble, out of all the revivals and the star-making vehicles, this Hello, Dolly! is the one that will be hard to beat.
Pictures Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes
Hello, Dolly! Continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, January 13