You don’t win many friends among theatre fanatics if you fault any of the divas who have portrayed Dolly Gallagher Levi onstage on the Great White ‘Way. You’ll never catch me saying a word against how Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Pearl Bailey, Ginger Rogers, Bette Midler, Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters or Ruth Gordon played the iconic matchmaker’s role on Broadway. Yes, that Ruth Gordon. She was the original Dolly in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker before the “Farce in Four Acts,” set to music by Jerry Herman with a two-act book by Michael Stewart, blossomed into the pure box office gold of Hello, Dolly!
Obviously, David Merrick knew a hot property when he saw it. Merrick produced the 1955 farce and the 1964 musical, installing Channing in the star turn that ensured her place in the theatre firmament. Notwithstanding the merits of all the other greats who have done Dolly afterward, Channing stands apart, reviving her triumph in 1978 and 1995.
Superiority is a different question, as you might decide after seeing Betty Buckley, her name flying proudly above the title in your playbill, in the current touring version at Belk Theater. With four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks directing and four-time winner Santo Loquasto helming sets and costumes, this is one roadshow with unmistakable Broadway polish and sparkle. On such a wondrous platform — with a notably strong supporting cast — Buckley confidently takes her place in the Dolly pantheon.
Given free rein by Zaks, Buckley may well be the most multi-faceted of them all. Aiming her soliloquies to the uppermost balcony, Dolly’s pleadings to her dearly departed Ephraim, asking him to release her before it’s too late so that she can make one last match for herself — so she can discard her eternal hustling and meddling and for once, dammit, enjoy life — are as poignant as you’ll ever see them. Yet her moments of comedy, shamelessly hambone, are invariably on-target, whether she’s working the audience or leading Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder on a merry chase into her own arms.
She literally makes a meal out of Dolly’s long, epicurean insouciance before deigning to participate in the climactic courtroom trial of the Harmonia Gardens revelers — and we enjoy every bite.
Yet while she’s confounding and dazzling Horace, Buckley somehow remains regally apart from the repressed underlings at Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed Store, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, who are also bamboozling Horace, AWOL from their Yonkers clerking jobs. They are doubly freed from humdrum Yonkers, for space is cleared away for their farce to shine when they all converge at Mrs. Molloy’s Hat Shop on Water Street in Manhattan.
It’s a fizzy whirl when Cornelius and Barnaby, smitten by Molloy and her clerk, are cornered as Dolly and then Horace arrive — for the widowed Irene Molloy is the specious match that Dolly has hand-picked for her esteemed Yonkers client. On one level, Dolly is helping Cornelius and Barnaby to prevent their boss from discovering their truancy. On the other, she’s helping to sustain the humble lackeys’ chances with the women by not blowing their respectable well-to-do covers.
Portents of farce are strewn among earlier scenes, beginning with Dolly’s having a business card for every human need under the sun. When Horace explains why he has decided to marry again in “It Takes a Woman,” the entire male population of Yonkers materializes at his store (the “Instant Glee Club” according to your playbill) for the refrains and vanishes just as instantaneously for the widower’s verses. In the ensuing scene at the Yonkers railway depot, when Horace and Dolly set off for their big city adventures, the bustle of the townsfolk smacks us with costume colors as pastel-bright as the most tempting bakery marshmallows.
The victim of multiple deceptions, Lewis J. Stadlen feasts most heartily on the farce as Horace, a whirlwind of frustration and confusion. The little speech before “It Takes a Woman,” lifted intact from Wilder, gives us a rare glimpse into why Horace is actually worthy of Dolly’s love, but unlike Charles LaBorde, who played the role at Halton Theater the last time CPCC presented Dolly, Stadlen doesn’t bother embedding that latent homebody goodness in his portrayal. Horace’s proposal, after countless peremptory refusals of Dolly’s hints, struck me totally out of left field this time around.
Hard to explain, but Stadlen’s approach works beautifully, nearly as touching as Buckley’s confabs with her dear Ephraim. Extra bonus: Stadlen starts off Act 2 with “Penny in My Pocket,” a song that was axed from Herman’s original score before the 1964 Broadway premiere and finally restored in the 2017 revival.
Horace’s solo spotlight only detains us momentarily from the comedy of his penniless Yonkers clerks and the fashionable Manhattan milliners who have captivated them. Yet this second-tier story is hardly a detour, for the contrast between timid penny-pinching Barney and the driven adventuresome Cornelius echoes the clash between Horace’s provincial prudence and Dolly’s cosmopolitan joie de vivre. You can also spy a similar disparity between Minnie Fay and her boss Irene, both of whom are courted by kindred spirits.
As a foursome, the younger generation serves up more frenetic comedy at the Hat Shop and Harmonia Gardens. You won’t have any problem taking to Analisa Leaming’s elegance as Irene or Kirsten Hahn’s adorable shyness as Minnie, and Sean Burn’s high anxieties are often throwback treats comparable to Stadlen’s. What really made me sit up and take notice as I watched the younger lovebirds in their mating dances was Nic Rouleau, who demonstrated what a star-quality voice can do for the role of Cornelius.
Any sailor from the 1920’s onward — and many, many teens today — would snicker at Cornelius’ notion of taking a train down to New York and not returning to Yonkers until he had been kissed by a woman. But corny Cornelius isn’t a sailor or a hip teen. He’s a Yonkers clerk in the early 1880’s who has languished for a long, long time in Vandergelder’s cellar instead of living it up. When Rouleau sings “It Only Takes a Moment,” it doesn’t obscure the objective fact that Herman’s lyrics are pure twaddle, but the undeniable authenticity of Cornelius’ first-time reaction ransoms it from hyperbole.
Similarly, you might notice that Buckley adds a little contemplative weight to the opening section of “Before the Parade Passes By,” registering the sadness of squandering years in facilitating and manipulating that could have held more satisfaction if they had simply been enjoyed. Yes, we get the usual evocations of trombones, brass bands and batons before the curtain falls for intermission. But the ascent to that moment gets steeper after Buckley’s rueful recognition of how precious every moment of life is.
It’s a performance and a production that occasionally take us back to the Our Town essence of Thornton Wilder.
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