Story: New York City is bustling in 1895, and in the middle of the action is Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi. The widow of Ephram Levi makes her living by selling her services to teach dancing, play musical instruments and a dozen other occupations, most notably arranging marriages.
One such nuptial involves stuffy, wealthy businessman Horace Vandergelder, a “half a millionaire” who runs Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed store in the town of Yonkers, New York. Vandergelder has decided to get married, he says, because he needs a woman to ‘happily’ do all of his household chores.
While trying to gain Vandergelder’s approval of a young artist named Ambrose Kemper to marry his weepy niece Ermengarde, Dolly tries to steer interest by Horace away from Irene Malloy, a widow who owns a hat shop in New York City whom Vandergelder wants to wed. Irene doesn’t love him, though, and instead is smitten with Vandergelder’s amiable chief clerk Cornelius when the latter steals a holiday for adventures in the big city.
Vandergelder may be wealthy, but he meets his ‘match’ in Dolly Levi and her persuasive ways to marry a second husband, namely Vandergelder. With Ephram’s approval from beyond, of course.
Highlights: This production of Hello, Dolly! marks the seventh time that the Broadway classic has been performed at The Muny, including once (in 1968) while it was in the midst of a record, seven-year run on the Great White Way, which ended at the end of 1970 after 2,844 performances. Based on Thornton Wilder’s play, The Matchmaker, the original run of Hello, Dolly! that began in 1964 won a then-record 10 Tony Awards, including a Best Actress nod to Carol Channing.
Presented just once at The Muny since 1997, Hello, Dolly! is a lavish, old-style musical that presents one melodious tune after another penned by composer/lyricist Jerry Herman, with a book by Michael Stewart. This finale to The Muny’s 2014 season is given a big, bold interpretation by stylish director Rob Ruggiero that is sure to please Muny patrons who favor ‘traditional’ musicals.
Other Info: Mike Isaacson, artistic director and executive producer for The Muny, points out in program notes that this version benefits from the collaboration of director Ruggiero, choreographer Ralph Perkins, set designer Michael Schweikardt and lighting designer John Lasiter, a group that previously blended talents for The Muny’s rewarding presentations of The King and I in 2012 and South Pacific in 2013.
Their efforts are equally adept here. Perkins’ choreography is bright, buoyant and bubbly, matching the upbeat book and Herman’s lyrical music. In fact, a marching band literally spills into the aisles, bringing the music right up to patrons along the first row behind The Muny’s main aisle.
Schweikardt utilizes a number of scenic backboards of Gotham back in the era before the 20th century, embellishing those with a sumptuous, red-carpet staircase that represents the tony Harmonia Gardens restaurant where Dolly foists the mysterious, and lowbrow, Ernestina Money upon Vandergelder before she makes her own grand entrance.
The ladies and gentlemen all look quite handsome adorned in Amy Clark’s button-down, business-class attire, and Rob Denton adds some touches to the set design with his video contributions. James Moore’s musical direction is a star in its own right as he coaxes a winning contribution by The Muny’s orchestra.
That staircase also serves as the setting for the show’s title song, which Louis Armstrong propelled to #1 on the pop charts in 1964, breaking a 14-week hold by The Beatles. Here, Beth Leavel in the title role plays it all up in very grand, larger-than-life style, with the notable assistance of Rich Pisarkiewicz as the prim maitre’d and a bevy of waiters who sway in precision to Herman’s effervescent melody.
A major puzzlement in the performance, though, is Leavel’s portrayal of Dolly. To me, she seemed inordinately over the top all night long, playing the role in an overly broad fashion, even taking its exaggeration into account. She often sounded as if she were imitating other actresses who made their mark with the character, including Carol Channing and Ethel Merman, even at one point reminiscent of Armstrong’s gravelly croon.
I didn’t care for her performance much at all, but the opening-night audience certainly did, giving her thunderous applause through the performance and a rousing standing ovation at the conclusion. We all can agree, though, that she worked tirelessly all evening.
O’Hurley, with his mane of silver hair, booming bass voice and stern demeanor, makes for an ideal Vandergelder, especially when he shows Horace’s surprisingly contrite soft side.
Ruggiero maintains a pleasant pace throughout and is especially successful with the comic elements, thanks to splendid work by Rob McClure as Cornelius, Jay Armstrong Johnson as junior clerk Barnaby and O’Hurley (here last year as King Arthur in Spamalot) as the stuffy, business-oriented Vandergelder.
McClure and Johnson are delightful as a team, displaying an expert knack for slapstick and quick comic moves highlighted by the hide ‘n’ seek adventures in Irene’s hat shop when their boss pays an unexpected visit.
Mamie Parris captivates as an enchanting and endearing Irene, demonstrating her lovely voice on the ballad, Ribbons Down My Back. Eloise Kropp is her eager assistant, Minnie, happy to join Irene, Cornelius and Barnaby for a night on the town with two ‘wealthy’ young men.
Daniel Berryman and Berklea Going portray Ambrose and Ermengarde, Michael Baxter is head waiter Stanley and Pisarkiewicz doubles as a romantic and teary-eyed judge. April Strelinger is a hoot in two roles, as Dolly’s friend from the old neighborhood, Mrs. Rose, and as the low-class Ernestina, who gives Vandergelder fits when Dolly isn’t. Adam Halpin amuses as a glacially slow court clerk.
Like the character herself is serenaded, it’s so nice to have Hello, Dolly! back where it belongs, on the imposing Muny stage.
Musical: Hello, Dolly!
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through August 17
Tickets: Free to $85; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Phillip Hamer