Every so often theatre patrons deserve to be indulged with an all-out pageantry of musical splendor that leaves nothing behind, bedazzling its audience members with comedic charm and heart, colorfully robust staging, and performers who exude pure charisma. The national touring production of “Hello, Dolly!” — which is currently playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through February 17th – is the quintessence of that and more. Over the years, in fact, “Hello, Dolly!” has established quite the track record for itself, winning ten Tony Awards during its “heyday” in 1964, and another four, including Best Broadway Revival, just two years ago.
Inspired by Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” in 1955 (which itself was based on John Oxenford’s 1835 play, “A Day Well Spent”), playwright Michael Stewart sets “Hello, Dolly!” in late-1800’s New York, centering it around its distinguished protagonist, Dolly Gallagher Levi (Betty Buckley). She is an elegant renaissance woman of innumerable skills and an arranger of love who is tasked with setting up the cantankerous “half-a-millionaire” widower, Horace Vandergelder (Lewis J. Stadlen), owner of Vandergelder’s Hay & Feed in Yonkers. Caught in the crossfire of cupid’s arrows and Levi’s amore-motivated cunning — which she, for once, decides to apply for her own benefit — are essential characters associated with Vandergelder, either in the familial sense, work-wise, or with romantic implications.
Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics are as irresistibly endearing as they were when they first entered public consciousness. The songs are a throwback to the golden-age-musical epoch that sought to first and foremost entertain and then ask piercing questions later. There is both a bubbliness and yet, paradoxically, a maturity to Herman’s lasting work that effortlessly breathes unrelenting energy into the performers of this “Hello, Dolly!” national tour.
Unquestionably, director Jerry Zaks, music director Robert Billig and choreographer Warren Carlyle have done their due diligence to channel a bygone time as seamlessly as they have. And, being that this is a production that is as much a visual treat as it is an auditory one, scenic/costume designer Santo Loquasto and lighting designer Natasha Katz also deserve ample recognition for the lavish and well-lit palette that so beautifully shores up and frames the narrative. From a lifelike horse that is puppeteered, to a train car that magically appears, to the jaw-dropping bouquet of period costumes and ornate hats — particularly during “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” — attendees will find themselves joyously smiling from ear to ear.
As the lead, Betty Buckley has taken the baton from Bette Midler and re-affirmed her legendary status as one who has a seemingly uncanny ability to completely transform herself into the character she is portraying. More than just an excellent singer whose vibrato-gilded voice conveys a delightful warmth, she is an elite actor who is committed to capturing a believability that resonates genuinely and without any contrivances. Her rendition of Dolly Levi is invigorating, fun, and draws in the audience who can’t help but be entranced by the character portrait that she has lovingly cultivated on stage.
At certain moments in the show, we passionately root for Buckley’s Dolly to pursue love again, especially when she poignantly beseeches the spirit of her late husband Ephraim to let her go “Before the Parade Passes By,” and during others, we’re in complete stitches watching her put on a masterclass of comedy. Overall, there is an awestriking presence about Buckley that happens to resonate most when she makes her grand entrance down the staircase of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. She glows ever so sublimely, to begin the rousingly classic title number, supported by a male ensemble waitstaff who impressively juggle and synchronously deliver platters of food, shish-kebab skewers, and wine with obsequiously beguiling flair (“The Waiters’ Gallop”).
Veteran performer Lewis J. Stadlen makes a perfect Vandergelder and flawless counterpart to Buckley’s Dolly. As cynical, stubborn, and demanding as his persona is, Stadlen still makes him come across so likably which is not an easy feat. We certainly can’t fault Vandergelder for wanting love or using Levi’s services to discover a suitable match. Along with Levi’s desire to solve her own loneliness, Vandergelder drives the plot, making for hilariously awkward scenes, snappy dialogue, and memorable slapstick situations. Stadlen commits to his role with such passion (e.g., “Penny in My Pocket”) and picture-perfect comic timing (e.g., inside Irene Malloy’s hat shop) that we don’t mind that Vandergelder is so full of himself; we ironically appreciate him more for it.
Nic Rouleau and Jess LeProtto play Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, respectively, who are employees of Vandergelder’s Hay & Feed store. Cornelius is a cloistered 33-year-old chief clerk who has practically never had a day off and dreams of excitement, and Barnaby is a 17-year-old hire and young man of few words who is easily surprised (“Holy Cabooses!”). Nevertheless, despite their minimal finances, they skip work and take on New York City to adventure and meet their soulmates. Rouleau and LeProtto share infectiously hysterical chemistry as two fish out of water rapscallions, reminiscent of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. Needless to say, as oblivious as Cornelius and Barnaby are, the portrayals are sincere. Rouleau imparts this innocence with his soaringly tender voice in “It Only Takes a Moment,” and LeProtto does so with his body language and exceptionally graceful dancing.
Analisa Leaming is Irene Molloy, a frazzled milliner and young widow who is originally set up with Vandergelder. Driven by an empowered impetuousness, Molloy yearns to escape her staid life and live with unrestrained and liberated abandon. Leaming actualizes Molloy with a sweet liveliness, which unfolds with a refreshing unpredictability, and puts her straitlaced subordinate, Kristen Hahn’s Minnie Fay, on edge. In an ode to Stanislavski’s stage aphorism, “there are no small parts, only small actors,” Hahn nearly steals the show with her idiosyncratic and uproariously shy (and startled) depiction.
Rounding out the incredible cast are Morgan Kirner as Ermengarde, Vandergelder’s spoiled niece and a perpetual crier; Garett Hawe as the starving artist, Ambrose Kemper, who wants to marry Ermengarde (watch out for Kirner and Hawe’s searing partner dance in “The Contest”); the sprightly and funny Jessica Sheridan as Ernestina; and Wally Dunn as Rudolph, the very-much-in-charge German headwaiter (and conductor) of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. These individuals are joined by many more who are spectacularly disarming and energetic as the Yonkers townsfolk and restaurant waiters.
Billed as “Broadway’s Greatest Musical,” “Hello, Dolly!” more than lives up to expectations, delivering a deliriously feel-good production that radiates amid beautiful sets, staging, and costumes. Led by the sheer appeal and enchantment offered by Buckley, Stadlen, and their castmates, audiences are apt to fall in love with this show all over again. For musical theatre aficionados, it’s clearly a match made in heaven.