Hello Dolly!

By Philip Pearce

WAS THERE EVER a major American musical with a pedigree as meandering and wildly unpredictable as that of the show that’s just opened at Carmel’s Outdoor Forest Theater?

It began life as an 1835 English one-act called A Day Well Spent, which got expanded into a full-length Austrian farce called Einen Jux will er sich machen, roughly He Will Go on a Spree or He’ll Have Himself a Good Time, about two grocery clerks on an adventure in 19th century Vienna. A century later Thornton Wilder reworked the plot, adding a memorable matchmaking widow named Dolly Levi to a Broadway flop he wrote called The Merchant of Yonkers. It all would have ended there and then had Wilder not agreed to rewrite the script as The Matchmaker for the 1954 Edinburgh Festival in a production that starred Ruth Gordon and went on to a successful Broadway run.  Shirley Booth starred in the 1958 movie version. Jerry Herman then manipulated the play and movie events into a 2,844-performance Carol Channing stage musical which he re-titled, as if you hadn’t guessed, Hello, Dolly!  

If after all these years you still need a plot summary, it’s enough to say that widower Horace Vandergelder leaves apprentice stock clerks Cornelius and Barnaby in charge of his Yonkers Hay and Feed Store while he goes off to New York City to court an attractive milliner named Irene with the help of a noted matchmaker named Dolly Gallagher Levi. The two clerks see the boss’s absence as a chance to close down the store and head for their own secret do-or-die night in the big city, which they spend falling in love with Irene and her hat shop assistant Minnie and evading Horace in various New York hot spots. Dolly, meanwhile, works subtly to undermine Irene as a future wife for Horace, for whom she has her own matrimonial designs.  

Walt DeFaria has assembled and deftly directed a gifted, enthusiastic local cast, headed by two of our top comedy actor/singers. Gracie Moore Poletti is a whirligig delight as the scheming but lovable Dolly. Armed with a handbag load of business cards proclaiming her entrepreneurial power over every human need from dancing lessons to quick-dating (“I Put My Hand In”) she is wily as a snake but such a radiant ambassador for true love and fearless adventure that you can’t resist her. Poletti has a delectable energy and a keen, flexible soprano voice, and she leavens her skillful horseplay with Horace with several touching progress report soliloquies aimed at her late lamented husband Ephraim. It’s a gorgeous performance.

Then there is the multi-talented Michael Jacobs, as brilliantly grouchy and explosively confused in the role of Horace as he was sly but lovesick years back as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls

Alex Poletti is a high-spirited and appealing Cornelius, Adrian Clark is callow and winsome as his slightly more practical colleague Barnaby.

Rachel Bagby is a lovely, clear-voiced Irene Molloy and Tess Franscioni pipes up much too briefly as her hilarious hat shop assistant Minnie Fay, who seems only able to speak with the breakneck clarity of a well-oiled ticker tape machine.

The ensemble do some great work, including a colorful “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” number, a neat and noisy Broadway marching band parade and a deft, napkin-snapping precision routine by the waiters at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant as they prepare to join in their familiar show-stopping “Hello Dolly!” welcome to Mrs Levi. 

With all that acting energy and singing skill, I was sorry that this production’s design team sometimes hadn’t provided the kind of support this able company of players deserve. As Irene, Rachel Bagby, for instance, gives a charming performance as a joyously liberated young widow (more than your average number of bereaved spouses figure in this show). But she looks more like a scheming femme fatale in a severe and unattractive pencil-thin brown skirt and puffed sleeves.

Nicole Bryant Stephens’ set design uses convincing enough wheeled units to create scenes at the hat shop and the Harmonia Gardens eatery, but the set colors sometimes clash with Yvonne Bowen’s surrounding costumes, notably in the important Harmonia Gardens scene in Act 2. The joke of this sequence is that the renegade store clerks are entertaining ladies in one private dining nook while their bemused boss is entertaining a potential fiancée in another. The cubicles are each decked out with bright red curtains that open and shut, keeping one dinner party from spotting the other. Apart from being a bit awkward to manipulate and sometimes masking some of the diners from view, these curtains are a glaring shade of red. No problem, except that walls are a different shade and the big central stairway Dolly is about to descend is of yet another red shade. Dolly arrives for her big number wearing yet a fourth brand of contrasting red finery. The scene is admirably acted and delightfully choreographed. But the central character doesn’t stand out visually because she and virtually every surface or object in the set are all in clashing shades of the same basic color. More close advance planning between costumer and set designer would have given this fine production a lot more visual excitement.

The whole cast has a group energy and excitement that finally nudged a somewhat sluggish opening night audience into loud applause and roars of approval by the time all the plot points and tuneful melodies ended just before ten o’clock.