A stunning ‘Hello, Dolly!’ wow, wow, wows ‘em at Goodspeed Musicals

By Tony Schillaci and Don Church

Jerry Herman’s classic feel-good musical, “Hello, Dolly!” is now playing at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, CT where it’s receiving unanimous acclaim from both audiences and critics.

The charismatic Klea Blackhurst has made this Dolly her own by playing the musical theater’s most famous matchmaker as an irrepressible, irresistible three-dimensional character with just enough genuine vulnerability to make her loveable.

Her portrayal gives Dolly a delightfully brash New York warmth and humor with just a dash of meddlesome pushiness. She is a talented performer with star quality.

Ms. Blackhurst instills Dolly Gallagher Levi’s songs with a powerful and exciting big Broadway voice that is distinctively her own. Her perfect diction affectionately highlights Jerry Herman’s witty and often touching lyrics.

Here is a Dolly that lives and breathes -- not just as a musical comedy character, but with the nervously edgy anxiety of a woman making her way alone in the big city during the Victorian era, when women’s rights as individuals were just beginning to be recognized.

Dolly is single-minded: after years of living as a widow, she wants to get her own piece of the pie, ‘before the parade passes by.’

This brings us to the wonderful score of this rollicking musical. From the first note the tunes are recognizable, hummable and when the company sings in blissful harmony it sends ripples down your back.

Once again orchestrator Dan DeLange, musical director Michael O’Flaherty, assistant musical director F. Wade Russo and sound designer Jay Hilton team to combine their expertise and make the music soar. There is probably not an orchestra today on Broadway that has as good a sound as is heard on the Goodspeed stage.

Jerry Herman gives us one gem after another -- “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before The Parade Passes By,” “Hello, Dolly” and “It Only Takes A Moment” are most familiar, and the energetic company of dazzling singers and dancers gives each song the gusto and verve inherent in a Herman show.

The moment Ms. Blackhurst’s Dolly begins singing “I Put My Hand In” it’s time to get ready to cheer. Whether solo, in a duet, a quartet or with the full ensemble, Dolly dazzles. And, she is in great company: Ashley Brown as Mrs. Malloy sings “Ribbons Down My Back” like we’ve never heard it before. It has crystal clarity and a joy that’s especially beguiling. Spencer Moses gives us a Cornelius Hackl who is naive, shy and charming, but it’s still easy to see Mrs. Malloy falling for this seemingly awkward fellow. When he finally realizes that “It Only Takes A Moment” to fall in love, we root for this character for taking the bold step of not letting that moment go, as he sings and dances with the best of them – the rest of them in the show.

There are not enough adjectives to describe in this space the infectiously delightful performance of Jeremy Morse as Barnaby. Impish and wide-eyed, he is a major contender to steal every scene in which he appears. Barnaby literally bounces across the stage like a rubber ball, and his enthusiasm for ‘getting as far away from Yonkers’ as he can get is a goal that can be understood -- mainly due to his irascible boss, Horace Vandergelder, the man you love to hate.

Tony Sheldon’s Vandergelder is loud, obnoxious and a skin-flint. He’s the chauvinistic product of his age, but he’s got money; the perfect challenge for Dolly, who knows how to manipulate and ‘arrange things.’ Vandergelder lets us know that he believes “It Takes A Woman” to clean his house and wash his dishes, while Dolly realizes that she can use her wiles to make Horace do her bidding. The give and take of this duo is the central conflict that thrills and delights the audience.

Catherine Blades is perfectly adorable as Minnie Fay, who works for Mrs. Malloy in the hat shop, and who has caught the eye of Barnaby. Minnie and Barnaby can be the poster-children for cute coupledom as they join Cornelius and Mrs. Malloy in the putting-on-the-Ritz tune “Elegance,” an uplifting song and dance piece that was made for high-steppin’ strutting.

The one couple in the show that doesn’t quite work is Horace’s daughter Ermengarde and her fiance Ambrose. No fault of the two fine actors, Brooke Shapiro and Charles MacEachern, they do everything they can with what is written in the book by Michael Stewart, but these characters just didn’t do it for us. No to worry; this is small stuff compared to their fine singing and dancing.

Melodie Wolford as Ernestina gives an hysterically broad interpretation of a grabby New Yawk working girl, while Jack Doyle as Rudolf the maitre d’ and Frankie Paparone as the court clerk do double duty in these extra roles -- whenever they get a moment to take a breather from the dance ensemble.

Director Daniel Goldstein keeps the pace going at break-neck speed, and since Dolly herself is a whirlwind, encouraging the rest of the cast to match her tempo is a brilliant stroke of directing. Adding the choreography of Kelli Barclay to the mix is a master stroke of teamwork. The dancing is inspired, magnetic and fluid, a major achievement on such a small stage. But at Goodspeed, as always, it works. When the cast sings “Dancing” and glides across the stage in one-two-three step waltz patterns, it seems as though Vienna has come to turn-of-the century 14th Street with a New York high-energy exhilaration.

Add to this the syncopated movement in the clever train ride scene for “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” number and you gleefully hop aboard for the fun. Barclay’s choreography is just as exciting as Gower Champion’s in the original production.
And, oh, those waiters in the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant! Here is the cast in the very best blending of choreographer and dancers. Kelli should be called Busby Barclay. It’s an over-the-top romp of waiters as they fleetingly serve customers with sight-gag staircase antics, flips, spins and harmonious acrobatics. On the night we saw the show, the male dancers brought the house down. The applause and cheers didn’t stop till the waiters got a chance to catch their collective breaths.

Adrian W. Jones has designed a brilliant set that with a magician’s slight of hand is a technical and artistic achievement. From the first sight of the stunning painted drop depicting an old New York street scene, he has successfully created the illusion of the turn of the century interiors and exteriors. His grand staircase and elegant Harmonia Gardens restaurant provides the critical space for the actors and dancers to play so energetically without the scenery or furniture creating obstacles.

Jason Lyons as lighting designer is a man after our own hearts. His lighting is just right for every scene, and it enhances the range of emotions, characters and action onstage. We’re able to ‘see’ the expressions on all the actor’s faces, and that is no mean feat when the current fashion is to make lighting subtle and shadowy.

Wade Laboissonniere (Costume Design) and Cookie Jordan (Wig and Hair Design) have created a look that is historically appropriate, yet seems to give more verve to the wardrobe of folks that strolled the avenues back in the 1890’s. The fabrics, hats, shoes, tailoring, accessories and colors are rich and elegant, and Dolly always looks smashing in her dressed-for-business style of the age. The ‘banana curls’ on Minnie Fay give that little girlish innocence to her character, and if Dolly’s piled up coif is not Klea Blackhurst’s real hair, then the illusion is nothing short of miraculous.

So let’s sum up. Music and singing-check. Dancing-check. Acting-check. Stagecraft- check. Production-check. Original story by Thornton Wilder-check. “Hello, Dolly!” at Goodspeed Musicals has got it all. The only thing missing is you, if you’re lucky enough to get one of the most sought-after tickets of the season.

Any theater lover who truly wants a stunning musical experience should get over to the Goodspeed Opera House before the parade passes by on September 14th. You’ll be raving about this production for years to come.

This ‘Dolly’ owes its success to every single person at Goodspeed Musicals from long-time executive director/producer, Michael Price, his top creative and management teams, and the craft designers and crew that mount each show to perfection. They have received two well-deserved Tony Awards in recognition of Goodspeed's dedication to the advancement and preservation of the American musical. Goodspeed Musical is celebrating 50 years of achievement this season.

Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT. 860-873-8668.
Tickets, performance times and dates online at www.goodspeed.org.

Written by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle.

This review published on Examiner.com July 21 2013.

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