Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2009
Will I ever get out of the year 1890 this summer?? Carousel, Hello, Dolly!, and, obviously, Paris 1890, Unlaced are all set in that year. The Gay Nineties, the Gilded Age, La Belle Epoch” – whatever you call them, the last years of the 19th century were obviously lively and memorable.
Only I learned recently that the original source material for Hello, Dolly! was written 55 years before 1890. It all began as a one-act farce entitled A Day Well Spent written in 1835 by British playwright and drama critic John Oxenford. It was turned in to a full-length play Einen Jux will er sich machen (He Will Go on a Spree) in 1842 by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy. Nearly a century later Thornton Wilder created an American version entitled The Merchant of Yonkers which ran for a thuddingly disastrous 39 performances on Broadway.
Notice what all those early incarnations have in common? No Dolly.
It wasn’t until Wilder reworked the material and moved the formerly minor character of a widowed Yonkers matchmaker front and center, that a successful play, The Matchmaker (1955), was produced.
In his autobiography Show Tunes (written with Marilyn Stasio) Jerry Herman revealed that the musical version was to be titled Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman and that he had even written a song called You’re a Damned Exasperating Woman! But Louis Armstrong’s hit single of Hello, Dolly! (released before the show opened) clinched its title.
All Dolly wanted was to be the center of attention. That’s why she gets the exclamation point after her name in the title.
And its so nice to have her back where she belongs at the Mac-Haydn, and finally in the person of Monica M. Wemitt, who once assayed the thankless task of understudying Carol Channing in the role. Channing is notorious for NEVER missing a performance, but she did, once, and Wemitt got to go on for her. The only actress EVER to go on for Channing in that role. How terrifying is that??
But here and now no one came to see Channing, they came to see Wemitt, who was born and raised in Columbia County, NY. Hometown girl makes good. It warms the cockles of your heart (wherever they may be located), especially when the hometown girl really IS good, Very, very good. Under Doug Hodge’s direction Wemitt rules the stage and she rules this strong production, which is marred only by a new-to-the-Mac-Haydn choreographer’s too-timid dance numbers.
It’s good to see Jim Kidd back at the Mac as the curmudgeonly Horace Vandegelder. Yes, this was Horace’s story before Dolly took over. Now the poor man hardly gets a word in edgewise, but Kidd holds his own against Wemitt, doing an especially nice slow burn during the Act II scenes at the Harmonia Gardens when he is plagued by the odious Ernestina Money (Tara Tagliaferro), and his wayward clerks Barnaby Tucker (Wes Urish) and Cornelius Hackle (Jason Whitfield), before being force-fed beets and having his wings cut by the conniving Dolly.
Urish was a delightful Barnaby, all wide-eyed innocence. I really did believe the dear boy’s greatest wish in life was to see that whale. I like my Corneliuses a little more broadly comical than Whitfield, but he certainly sings well and he and Karla Shook’s Irene Molloy made a nice pair.
I could have done with broader interpretation by Mary Elizabeth Milton as Minnie Fay and Andrea Doto as Ermengarde too. Thank goodness the men, including Ermengarde’s inamorata Ambrose Kemper, played by Ryan Michael Owens, a tall, lanky blond fellow with the face of a Kewpie doll.
Why is Tagliaferro always cast as the ugly girl? She is perhaps not Barbie-doll beautiful but she is a good-looking woman and it took too great an effort to try to ugly her up – I could tell that was a pretty girl in bad make-up. The lip liner was really over the top.
Quinto Ott, whose fine bass voice had attracted my attention earlier this season, gets a chance to step out of the chorus and shine a bit as Rudolph Reeisenweber, maitre d’ of the Harmonia Gardens.
Costume Designer Jimm Halliday obviously loves all the colors, ruffles and flourishes of the Gay Nineties and his costumes are uniformly nifty. Wemitt looks glorious, especially in a dazzling red beaded gown for her entrance into the Harmonia Gardens. That dress literally got its own round of applause. But my eye was particularly drawn to details like the embroidered “HG” monograms on the waiters and chefs attire (how easy would it have been to use any old aprons on the waiters) and to the way in which Halliday snuck the necessary volume into Dolly, Irene, and Minnie Fay’s dresses in the hat shop* scene.
The Mac-Haydn is a very particular space. The first two shows of this season have been filled with the dazzling choreography of Kelly L. Shook who has been performing, directing, and choreographing at the Mac for a long time. Brian J. Marcum has some decent dance and choreography credits to his name, but he just doesn’t understand what is possible in that space. There was Wemitt singing Before the Parade Passes By and there was NO PARADE. Excuse me? I’ve seen elephants dance, rain and snow fall, and Grizabella ascend to the Heaviside Layer at the Mac-Haydn. Don’t tell me the 14th Street Parade of 1890 wouldn’t fit!
Hello, Dolly! is a farce, but of a refreshingly different kind, and undoubtedly that is because of Dolly Gallagher Levi’s ascendance. Most farces involve someone trying to get away with something, and yes, here the culprits are Barnaby and Cornelius trying to sneak in a New York City adventure without the knowledge of Mr. Vandegelder, but what they are up to is not adulterous or even particularly sexy. “We won’t come home until we’ve kissed a girl!” is about as racy as it gets. People in farces usually have everything they need and still want more. In Hello, Dolly! everyone needs something, or more properly someone, and Dolly is just the gal to get it for them.
I now confess that my personal fantasy is to some day find myself in a gorgeous Jimm Halliday gown (pink is my color, Jimm) being greeted by a chorus of handsome, dancin’ men. Okay, I’ll settle for just men. Men who mean it when they sing Hello, Gail! Just a friendly greeting in four-part harmony with a full symphony orchestra. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
Hello, Dolly! runs through July 5 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
*Am I missing something about 19th century female hatmakers? First I meet a very saucy chapelier in Paris 1890, Unlaced and then Irene Molloy tells me that everyone knows that millineresses are wicked women...hmmmm...
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009