Review: Hello, Dolly!

One of the last great Golden Age musicals revived with panache

A feeling of warmth and comfort came over me Tuesday night at Bass Concert Hall as soon as the house lights went down and the orchestra launched into the overture for Jerry Herman’s delectable score for Hello, Dolly!

The feeling was noticeably different than the long-anticipated excitement felt at the start of Hamilton, the electricity of Jesus Christ Superstar, or the curiosity before Dear Evan Hansen. With Dolly, we were returning to visit an old friend, all prettily dressed up, looking and sounding perhaps better than ever, if only because we haven’t seen her ilk in such a long time, and we’ve missed her. And by “her,” I mean not only this show but also good, old-fashioned musical comedy.

The Hello, Dolly! National Tour company (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Hello, Dolly! is one of the last great musicals from Broadway’s “golden age,” which ran roughly from the mid-1940s (beginning with Oklahoma!) to the mid-1960s, when composer/lyricists like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Jerry Herman turned out a number of shows that have withstood the test of time and produced songs that entered and have endured in the American consciousness. Even if you’ve never seen Hello, Dolly!, you damned sure can hum a few bars of the title tune.

Of course, Dolly has always been a bit of an exercise in nostalgia, even at its premiere in 1964. Based on Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker, the show is set in the New York City (and nearby Yonkers) in 1885. Ladies in long, bustled skirts, sporting elaborate hats and parasols, were seen with gentlemen in top hats and tailcoats. They rode in horse-drawn streetcars and went to elegant restaurants like the Harmonia Gardens – if they had the money. And widowed matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi decides that her path to a moneyed lifestyle is by matching herself with Mr. Horace Vandergelder, a curmudgeonly “half-a-millionaire” who has built a successful hay and feed business in Yonkers. But to slyly manipulate Horace and convince him that she is his ideal wife, Dolly must employ a series of schemes to render other contenders inappropriate.

This national touring production – which began life on Broadway in 2017 with Bette Midler as Dolly – is such a joy because we are witnessing the work of seasoned pros at the top of their game. For starters, Michael Stewart’s book, Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics, and Gower Champion’s original staging and choreography are pretty much the essence of American musical comedy: outsized characters, lots of laughs, some tenderness and romance, punctuated by great songs and dances. Here, director Jerry Zaks, choreographer Warren Carlyle, and scenic and costume designer Santo Loquasto don’t try to reinvent anything. They honor the original and deliver it with considerable panache.

What makes this Dolly truly unique among the productions I have seen is the balance of the cast. Ever since Carol Channing seized the leading role in 1964 and kept returning to it for almost 35 years, Dolly has almost always been a “star” vehicle. That was certainly the case in 2017 with Bette Midler. Even though she was surrounded by a first-rate cast that included David Hyde-Pierce as Horace, the show ultimately was all about Bette, and that was fine.

With Carolee Carmello and John Bolton as Dolly and Horace, we have two seasoned performers with a wealth of Broadway credits but who are not bringing long-established personas (e.g., the Divine Miss M and Niles Crane) that instantly color an audience’s expectations. What they do bring is a wealth of talent and energy, plus sharp characterizations. Bolton, a comedic song-and-dance man in the Dick Van Dyke mold, is a particular delight, giving Horace a sly humor and warmth beneath the curmudgeonly exterior. We can see that Dolly will eventually love him for more than his money.

The entire supporting cast and ensemble is first-rate and too numerous to mention here. The classic production numbers like “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before the Parade Passes By,” “The Waiter’s Gallop,” and, of course, the title tune, are as flawlessly executed as one could hope for.

Thank you, Dolly, for a lovely evening. It’s so nice to have you back where you belong.

Hello, Dolly! runs through Jan. 26, Wed.-Fri., 8pm; Sat., 2 & 8pm; Sun., 1 & 7pm, at Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman, UT campus. For more information, visit the Texas Performing Arts website.

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Broadway in Austin, Texas Performing Arts, Carol Channing, Jerry Herman, John Bolton, Bette Midler, Jerry Zaks

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