Goodspeed Celebrates 50th with "Hello, Doly!"

by Tom Holehan

Surprising to discover that “Hello, Dolly!”, that Jerry Herman Broadway warhorse that lists everyone from Carol Channing to Wall-E as fans, has never been produced by Goodspeed Musicals. It’s understandable why the venerable (but oh-so-smallish) East Haddam playhouse would hesitate to tackle this big, old-fashioned musical with its huge production numbers, daunting choreography and numerous scenic and costume demands. There’s also the matter of finding someone with the kind of outsized personality and Broadway belt to play that demanding title character. Cheers to Goodspeed, then, for coming up aces in practically all departments. It’s great to have “Dolly” back where she belongs.

Based on Thornton Wilder’s classic play, “The Matchmaker”, the endlessly popular “Hello, Dolly!” with its familiar score by Jerry Herman (just about every song is a standard now) and delightful book by Michael Stewart never goes out of style. In 1890’s Yonkers, Matchmaker Dolly Levi bursts onto the scene and reveals her plans to marry Horace Vandergelder, the notable “half-a-millionaire” and owner of a successful feed store. Horace is oblivious to Dolly’s plan hiring her in hopes she will find him a wealthy new wife -- one he plans to meet that very day in Manhattan.

Obviously any production of “Hello, Dolly!” sinks or swims with the crucial casting of Dolly Levi. Klea Blackhurst, who has made a career singing the songs of Ethel Merman (she won kudos at the Music Theatre of Connecticut a few seasons back with her cabaret act, “Everything The Traffic Will Allow”), turns out to be a wonderful Dolly. Although a little tentative at the early performance I caught, she soon relaxed and took command of the stage with gusto, eventually bringing down the house with the act one curtain number, “Before the Parade Passes By”. She is also uproarious later in the musical set in a populated court room where she is feasting on a late supper that includes potatoes and corn on the cob. Simply hilarious.

Tony Sheldon is a fine and fussy Horace Vandergelder and Ashley Brown, fresh from her Broadway stint as “Mary Poppins”, is glorious playing the widow he intends to marry. Her singing of the lovely ballad, “Ribbons Down My Back”, is infused with poignancy and romance. As Vandergelder’s brow-beaten clerk, Cornelius, Spencer Moses resembles a very tall Steve Buscemi and seems oddly cast, but he sings like a dream and sells standards like “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment” with ease and assurance.

The ingenious scenic design by Adrian W. Jones does a lot with little, transforming Vandergelder’s feed store into a moving train and then to a ladies’ hat shop within moments. Wade Laboissonniere’s beautiful period costumes also seem exactly right here. Choreographer Kelli Barclay has her work cut out for her, especially with the difficult “Waiters’ Gallop,” which, at Goodspeed, seems to suffer a tad from too few waiters. Still, you couldn’t tell from the audience’s reaction which adored it and just about every other moment of this welcome revival directed with snap by Daniel Goldstein. After a recent misfire with their gooey opening production of “Good News”, Goodspeed’s 50th anniversary suddenly resembles a season worth celebrating.

“Hello, Dolly!” has been extended at Goodspeed Musicals through September 14. For further information or ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

 

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