Hello, Dolly! at The Peace Center
Bruce Steele: The Peace Center's touring Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! was my third visit with Dolly Levi onstage in the past 25 years, so I'm very curious to hear your impressions as a first-time visitor to this classic Jerry Herman musical about the beloved and meddling New York City matchmaker.
Edwin Arnaudin: I had a mixed experience. There’s a lot to admire, from the period production design to some impressive dancing to a host of amusing characters played by talented performers, but the storytelling and songs don't do much for me. Conflicts are resolved or abandoned with distracting simplicity, and besides the titular number — which more than lives up to its legendary status — I doubt any of the music will stick with me. It’s definitely an actors’ showcase, especially the lead role, but I’m otherwise struggling to understand why the show is beloved by so many people.
Bruce: Simply put, along with Gypsy, it may be the best classic Broadway showcase for a beloved diva. I have to disagree sternly about the song score, which is studded with memorable numbers: the celebratory "Put on Your Sunday Clothes"; the rousing Act 1 closer, "Before the Parade Passes By"; and Cornelius's sweet love song, "It Only Takes a Moment," among them. And they're all lavishly staged and beautifully sung in this production. You didn't smile when the train steamed onstage for "Sunday Clothes"?
Edwin: I did, but not because of the song. I think there’s a reason why I haven’t heard any of the other compositions in various realms of pop culture, but I’m obviously familiar with the show’s existence — just not what it’s about or any details about its many characters. Getting to know these folks, however, is often delightful, especially once the action moves to the Yonkers hay and feed store run by Horace Vandergelder (Lewis J. Stadlen), and especially especially once his clerks Cornelius Hackl (Nic Rouleau) and Barnaby Tucker (Sean Burns) are activated and drive the narrative forward.
Bruce: Rouleau was terrific. I don't remember whom I saw last year on Broadway in the same production with Bernadette Peters in the lead, but Rouleau couldn't have impressed me more. As his love interest, Irene Malloy, Analisa Leaming makes an apt partner, handling the pleasant "Ribbons Down My Back" on her own. I also really enjoyed Stadlen's broad, oh-so-New-York interpretation of Vandergelder, who's such an over-the-top character that Stalen's quasi-Vaudevillian comedy works well. Which leads us up to our non-Vaudevillian star, Betty Buckley.
Edwin: She’s solid. Any issues I have stem from the writing, not her performance, which is consistently witty and brimming with confidence. However, I don’t have much to compare her with like you do.
Bruce: Well, it was refreshing to see a great actress play Dolly as a role, rather than as a vehicle for her own personality. I didn't see Bette Midler, but I imagine she was in the same realm as late-career Carol Channing, whom I saw in the early '90s, and Peters, each of whom molded Dolly to her larger-than-life persona with frequent nods to the audience. Buckley has some winking to do, built into this production by director Jerry Zaks, but mostly she acts the part touchingly, and delivers the songs in her legendary voice. She'll turn 72 this summer, and she can still hoof it with the chorus boys at the Harmonia Gardens.
Edwin: The second act at that fancy restaurant certainly benefits from her presence. Prior to her show-stopping entrance down the staircase to her title track, the action is borderline overly madcap, yet she grounds the proceedings and makes the chaos more palatable. As for the fourth wall breaking — or whatever the theater equivalent is — I’d rather it be nonexistent or so frequent that the the audience feels like they’re part of the story. When Buckley does recruit our help, it’s more forced and awkward than second nature.
Bruce: I see your point, but I don't blame her for that, since it was built into this production of the show for the benefit of Midler, and Peters after her. This is a the-same-but-different show, and I'd recommend it to both those who want to see what the fuss was all about as well as those who may have caught a previous diva. As you pointed out, it's super old-fashioned, but it was old-fashioned even when it debuted in 1964 (hence the 1885 setting). The fantasy-nostalgia stance is set up to fuel both the madcap humor you note and the gorgeously over-the-top production numbers (with stunning costumes). Once Betty's on the staircase, I would expect theatergoers of all ages to enjoy how off-the-hook the show remains for that title song. The wrap-up thereafter may be perfunctory, but such goodwill has been earned that the glow still reaches to the final ovations. I just hope Ms. Buckley gets a lot of rest in between shows.
Hello, Dolly! runs through June 2 at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit peacecenter.org for details and tickets.
(Photos: Julia Cervantes/Courtesy of the Peace Center)