What if I were to tell you that there was a Midlands production of a show that won 10 Tony Awards, setting a Broadway record that went unbroken for 37 years? What if I added that a recent revival starring Bette Midler — who was later replaced by Bernadette Peters — ran another year and a half in New York, and garnered another four Tonys from 10 nominations? Would I intrigue you further by mentioning that the composer/lyricist was Jerry Herman, who won the Tony for his musical adaptation of La Cage aux Faux, and that the script was based on a play by multiple Pulitzer-winner Thornton Wilder?
What if I then were to reveal that the play in question is Hello, Dolly!? Much like the common reaction to rock concerts from classic groups such as the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and the Steve Miller Band, there it’s a title that’s likely to elicit conflicting views, but few would stem from the actual content of the material. Instead, the question at hand would be how relevant can a G-rated musical from an earlier era be for audiences in 2019? Does inherent musical and comedic value persist and endure, even as societal mores and tastes evolve?
I can provide no definitive answer. But I can confidently state that I enjoyed opening night for Hello, Dolly! at Town Theatre. Then again, I really, really like the Eagles, too.
All the principal roles are double-cast. The cast witnessed for this review performs on Thursdays and Fridays.
For the few who may have missed reruns of the Oscar-winning film adaptation with Barbra Streisand as Dolly, or who may only know the hit recording of the title track as performed by Louis Armstrong, the plot is quite straightforward. Prosperous merchant Horace (Bill DeWitt) employs the services of matchmaker Dolly Levi (Kathy Hartzog) in turn-of-the-century Yonkers, New York, but the widowed Dolly sets out to claim Horace for herself. Along the way, she ensures that his histrionic niece (Grace Sawicki) — fearful that she will be an old maid at 18 — ends up with her boyfriend (Alex Cone), and that his geeky clerks Cornelius (Paul Black) and Barnaby (Zachary Linick) find love with two adorable geekettes, milliner Irene (Cortlin Collins) and her assistant Minnie (Emily Clelland.)
Hartzog and DeWitt are veteran Midlands characters actors with dozens of credits apiece. On opening night, neither tried to sing like Streisand or Sinatra, nor did they attempt any sort of New York accent, but both knew how to milk a lyric for every drop of humor, and to keep the audience in the figurative palms of their hands.
Musical prowess was instead found in the quartet of young lovers, with the foursome capturing shy awkwardness and ineptitude in their dialogue, but revealing the earnest intent of their emotions though lovely harmonies and exuberant dance moves, courtesy of musical director Kathy Seppamaki and choreographer Christy Shealy Mills. A particularly intricate number involving the hustle and bustle of waiters at a posh restaurant drew the most applause from the audience — that is, until a visibly appreciative and touched Hartzog took her final bow.
There were plenty of familiar tunes in Herman’s score, including “Elegance” and “It Only Takes a Moment,” but for me the vocal highlight was the wistful “Ribbons Down My Back,” with Collins singing alone in front of a strikingly pretty backdrop of teal and lavender lighting created by Harrington. Excellent wigs and hair design by David Swicegood and detailed costumes by Billy Bishop and Sophie Smith successfully contributed to the show’s visual authenticity.
Scenic designer Danny Harring made excellent choices for his set, employing projections to establish locales in the city, outlines of rugged beams and rafters for Horace’s store, and delicate patterns of arches and half-moons to suggest the elegant window panes at Irene’s shop.
With capers and hijinks involving mistaken identity, and seemingly mismatched pairs of young lovers, the story played out like a farce, in the same vein as romantic intrigue found in the works of everyone from Shakspeare to Plautus. Director Allison McNeely’s cast embraced the conventions of the genre without sacrificing the sincerity of the characters’ emotions and motivations.
Herman’s score is a product of the era in which it was composed, i.e. mainstream Broadway of the early-1960s, but was bouncy and quite hummable. It occurred to me that this recognizable style has contributed significantly to the success in recent years of animated Disney musicals, which are praised for capturing the ambience of classic stage musicals such as this one.
Perhaps, as with trends in the appreciation of popular music, contemporary audiences discovering Hello, Dolly! for the first time may not even realize that they’re not supposed to enjoy older shows, and will be able to appreciate the material for its sheer entertainment value.
What: Hello, Dolly!
Where: Town Theatre, 1012 Sumter St.
When: Through Sept. 22
Price: $25 ($20 for seniors and students; $15 youth 17 and under)
More: 803-799-2510, towntheatre.com