|Will Burton, Klea Blackhurst, and Steve Geary. Photo: Diane Sobolewski|
Well, Hello, Klea! Blackhurst is a Charming, Feisty Dolly
By Lauren Yarger
When Goodspeed Musical first announced a production of Hello Dolly!, I must admit my first reaction was “ho hum.”
Jerry Herman’s tunes, like “Before the Parade Passes By,” “It Only Takes a Moment,” and the title song are the best part of the show which otherwise doesn’t have a lot to offer. Michael Stewart’s book, based on Thorton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker, is weak, at best. The thing that really made this show a hit when it won 10 Tony Awards in 1964 including (amazingly enough – it beat Funny Girl) Best Musical, was star Carol Channing (who reprised the role of matchmaker Dolly Levi for two Broadway revivals in 1978 and 1995).
Channing’s portrayal is the iconic one against which all other Dollys are measured (including Funny Girl star Barbra Streisand who played Dolly in the 1969 movie version). They are big shoes to fill, but my interest in Goodspeed’s production piqued when directed Daniel Goldstein (Broadway’s Godspell) announced casting of Klea Blackhurst in the lead with Ashley Brown in a supporting role to boot.
Blackhurst won the CT Critics Circle Award for her performance in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s production of All the Traffic Will Allow, a one-woman tour de force through the songs and life of Ethel Merman. If anyone could take on Channing, Blackhurst, could, I thought, and Brown, who created the title role in Broadway’s Mary Poppins and played Belle in Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast, is a bonus as Irene Molloy, a hat maker whom matchmaker Dolly has introduced to “half” millionaire Horace Vandergelder (Tony Sheldon), though she has her eye on him herself. I was right. Both bring wonderful singing voices and pluck to their characters. Sheldon rounds out some fine casting and gives depth to the otherwise unbelievable, shallow, sexist Horace.
Blackhurst is a combination of talent, humor, sheer force and seriousness (otherwise we’d never believe those dumb business cards she keeps pulling out of her oversized bag). She’s a cross between Ethel Merman and Bette Midler as she makes her entrance up the aisle through the house to the stage, but she puts her own stamp on Dolly.
We sympathize with her when she talks with her departed husband about the need to get on with her life, and smile as she exasperates Horace and sabotages his meetings with Irene and the unsuitable Ernestina (Melodie Wolford) so she can position herself to be the next Mrs.Vandergelder. Dolly’s scheme gets a leg-up when Irene falls in love, instead, with Cornelius (Spencer Moses), chief clerk at Vandergelder Hay and Feed. Cornelius and his associate, Barnaby (Jeremy Morse), take a night off and pretend to be well-to-do gents on the town as they entertain Irene and her assistant, Minnie (Catherine Blades) and try to avoid their boss.
While they are out, they visit a fancy restaurant and are served by a chorus line of waiters ridiculously balancing glasses and bottles, throwing plates and rolling by on carts as choreographed by Kelli Barclay. OK, she is limited by Adrian W Jones’ set designs which decrease the size on the already too-small stage to accommodate scenic elements like the famous grand stairway down which Dolly descends to the strains of “Hello Dolly!,” but the moves throughout the show appear either hokey or stilted.
The late 19th-century costuming in muted colors that seem to blend with the set (Wade Laboissonniere, design) also proved somewhat problematic. In one larger dance number, Blackhurst suddenly was unable to perform the choreography when her underskirt tore and got tangled around her feet. A true pro, she hid the problem nicely and I am sure most of the audience was unaware of her difficulty, or of her subtle communication to the other dancers that she wasn’t able to execute the moves as choreographed.
Seconds later, she didn’t miss a beat as she ate the scenery – literally – in a scene which calls for her to consume a huge meal of dumplings and corn on the cob, totally oblivious to the entire ensemble and audience watching her. It was sheer comedic brilliance – and a testament to Blackhurst’s theater chops. A less experienced performer might have been tempted to use the knife to cut herself free from the offending underskirts, bringing attention to them in some way that would have shifted the focus of the scene.
Meanwhile, there is another matchmaking subplot involving Horace’s niece Ermangarde (Brooke Shapiro), who weeps and whines all the time (and has very little other dialogue) because her uncle doesn’t approve of her chosen, Ambrose Kemper (Charles MacEachern). After a while, we kind of wonder why the heck anyone would want to marry her, but matchmaker Dolly does her best to bring the two together.
It’s one of those old musicals with a few memorable tunes and a ridiculous plot that would find it difficult to stand on a modern stage otherwise, but solid performances anchored by Blackhurst make Goodspeed’s production an enjoyable romp through turn-of-the-century New York. Goodspeed announced a week’s extension to the run before it even had begun.
Hello Dolly! runs through Sept. 14 at Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam. Performances: Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 pm., Thursday at 7:30 pm (with select performances at 2 pm), Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm (with select performances at 6:30 pm). There will also be performances on Tuesdays, Aug. 13 and 27 at 2 pm. Tickets $27-$81.50: (860.873.8668) or online at goodspeed.org.