by MIKE CHAIKEN
When it comes to classic stage shows, there is a tendency to reimagine the old chestnuts.
From a commercial point of view, the idea is to appeal to modern audiences that might be bored by the sensibilities of the past. Or, they’re reworked because the original approach to the story might offend a more progressive spectator.
Shakespeare is a prime example of classic theater that regularly gets reworked and updated. The themes of his plays are timeless, and transforming their settings to different times and places work well.
Sometimes, the shows have to be modernized. I think if a theater company used a white man in black face as Othello, which had been done in the play’s past, the director would be vilified.
But if there is no compelling reason to tinker with a classic, there’s something to be said of leaving well enough alone.
The touring production of “Hello, Dolly!,” which stops at The Bushnell now through Sunday, appears to be left nearly as it was presented in 1964. (I was just a few months old in 1964, I am making an education assumption based on movies and television shows I’ve seen from the same time period.)
The direction by Jerry Zaks, the choreography by dance arrangements by David Chase, the orchestrations by Larry Hochman, and vocal arrangements by Don Pippin all seem as if they were dropped into 2019 from an earlier, different era.
Additionally, the production doesn’t tinker with the plot line. There is no effort, for example, to turn the show into a #metoo moment.
Yes, the women are strong in the show. But they are forced to work around the rules of men.
Dolly is a matchmaker. In her world in the late 19th century, women are at the mercy of men when it comes to matrimony. Single women, or widows, are the source of gossip and are urged to keep to hide themselves away until they are wed once again. In Dolly’s world, the goal of every woman is to be married, for money and convenience. Romantic love, well, it may happen. But it’s not necessarily a requirement for men and women.
Dolly, portrayed by Carolee Carmello in this touring production, is a woman of many talents. In a modern era, her independence would be celebrated. But Dolly would toss away all of her endeavors for a chance to be married again.
These old-fashioned values in the plot do not make this production of “Hello, Dolly!” a museum piece. It is far from musty and rusty. There is a vibrancy, an energy, a lightness that draws you in with this production of “Hello, Dolly!.” It’s immensely entertaining.
The key to the success of this show is Carolee Carmello, who plays the busy body and irrepressible Dolly Gallagher Levi.
She’s the central character and each time Carmello steps on stage, all eyes immediately are drawn to her. For instance, in the production number for the song “Hello, Dolly!” Carmello is surrounded by a dozen dancers leaping all around the stage. But at no moment does Carmello lose control of the proceedings. Her performance is entrancing.
Carmello also is well-versed in old-fashioned hamming it up.
I’ve never seen a fancy meal become such a comic goldmine before. But in a key scene, Carmello indulges in dessert in a manner that is absolutely hilarious. Throughout the show, Carmello skillfully milks the laughs for everything their worth.
John Bolton is great as the crusty Horace Vandergelder, who is seeking matrimony essentially to avoid the task of hiring a housekeeper. He has learned the old school comedy skill of the straight man’s slow burn.
Vandergelder’s helpers at his feed shop, played by Daniel Beeman (Cornelius Hackl) and Sean Burns (Barnaby Tucker) also have mastered classic physical comedy. Their comedic skills were considerably helped by their superb dance training. The zip-zip-zip they offered could not have taken place if they weren’t in such great physical shape.
Their romantic interests, Analisa Leaming (Irene Molloy) and Chelsea Cree Groen (Minnie Fay) were also delightful. Leaming’s vocal performance of “Ribbons Down My Back” was wonderfully effortless. It was one of the highlights of the evening.
It took me a moment at the beginning of the show to ease my way into being drawn into the story of “Hello, Dolly!” Frankly, I’ve never been fond of the time period, the late 19th century. Also I was too familiar with the many, many professional and amateur productions of the show since Carol Channing first took the stage as Dolly in the 1968.
Essentially, I entered the theater waiting for the show to prove to me that I wasn’t wasting my time by showing up to review the show that night.
But by the end of the evening, I was so happy I took the opportunity to brave Connecticut’s sudden arctic chill to check out this classic musical.
I now understood why “Hello, Dolly!” is considered one of the great shows of American theater.
I give “Hello, Dolly!” five out of five stars.