Hello Dolly! is as starry of a star vehicle as you can get. Dolly’s name is right there in the title — exclamation mark and all — and the musical’s most famous song involves a chorus of men singing about how much they love her for six minutes straight. Dolly Levi’s character is diva bait, a chance for a spotlight-stealing actress to bask in the adoration, both from the characters on stage and from the audience.
In Pioneer Theater Companythe production of Hello Dolly!, Paige Davis, in the title role, succeeds in conquering the public. Somewhat paradoxically, however, it’s the set that really stands out. Aided by an excellent orchestra led by Music Director Phil Reno, the talented singers and dancers are dazzling, showing off their considerable performance skills while remaining focused on the story’s natural humor and quiet emotional resonance.
It’s the 1890s and widowed Dolly Gallagher Levi returns to New York after a long absence. She won’t stay long though – Dolly heads to Yonkers to find a bride for “half-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (Kris Coleman). As a matchmaker, Dolly has a remarkable success rate, and she memorably explains that “some people paint, some people sew, I get involved”. (Although, in a running gag throughout, Dolly has plenty of other oddly specific skills as well.) Dolly reveals to the audience that this match is unlike any other — she has an elaborate plan to marry Horace herself. Meanwhile, Horace’s two overworked clerks, Cornelius (Alexander Mendoza) and Barnaby (Michael J. Rios), sneak into town on their own adventure. They are soon smitten with hat shop owner Irene (Kelly McCormick) and her employee Minnie (Dori Waymer), but with little money and a boss who is always lurking nearby, their dating is a comedy of errors. .
Let’s put the obvious aside: this 1898-1964 musical contains elements that seem dated. In particular, gender politics in Jerry Herman’s songs and Michael Sherman’s book – adapted from the play by Thorton Wilder The Yonkers Merchant– are firmly rooted in the past. (Apparently Horace never learned to do basic household chores in the years after his wife’s death.) This production, directed and choreographed by Karen Azenberg, brings some contemporary updates. The racially diverse cast is a welcome and needed change (even the 2017 Broadway revival cast had all-white runways) and the parade that ends Act I includes protesters advocating for unionization and women’s rights. Yet Azenberg’s interpretation of Hello Dolly! is simple and classic in spirit. She proves that old-fashioned isn’t necessarily pejorative, finding and embracing the fundamental joy of musical comedy.
A key element of that joy are Herman’s timeless songs, which nearly six decades later remain catchy, warmly funny and moving. The same goes for Stewart’s knack for enjoyable, deftly constructed pranks – there’s an easy satisfaction in watching every plot element fall into place perfectly. Even the musical’s most antiquated attitudes seem more forgivable in context. Songs like “It Takes a Woman” are obviously sexist on the surface, but the chorus of men looking for a traditional housewife are also buffoons, hardly worth taking seriously. When it comes to romance, Dolly is the one in control, whether she’s feeding the sparks between Cornelius and Irene or expertly leading Horace to a proposal. This courtship may not be sentimental – Dolly’s desire to “join the human race” is more about financial security than passionate romance. Despite, or perhaps because of, there is something modern and even oddly moving about Dolly’s quest for a second marriage. You never doubt that Dolly will build her own happy ending by force of will.
Azenberg has directed and choreographed many musicals at the PTC, but this production is particularly suited to his strengths. Numbers like “The Waiters’ Galop,” filled with highly choreographed slapstick, are painstakingly staged and precisely executed, and she pulls effortless physical comedy from the cast. Mendoza is the standout vocalist of the cast and his “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” is a clear highlight, while Rios is equally adept at energetic dance solos or goofy comedy. The creative team does similar work: set designer James Noone constructs a romantic take on turn-of-the-century New York, while Eduardo Sicangco goes perfectly over the top with Dolly’s costume for the title.
Dolly’s character is both a kind-hearted hero and a mischievous mischievous schemer, and Davis is a more natural fit for the lead role than the supporting role. Her charming performance makes Dolly easy to root for, but she might slip into the background at times. Still, if there’s a slight problem with Davis’ fundamental softness, it’s a good problem. In this classic and good-natured production, comfort and charm take precedence.
Hello Dolly! will be at the Pioneer Theater Company until May 28. For tickets and more information, visit PTC website. Learn more about Utah Theater.