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Hello, Dolly! by Matthew Murray

  • Tovah Feldshuh and the cast of Hello, Dolly!It's one of musical theatre's true iconic images: The woman in a red dress slowly descending a glittering staircase into the much-loved restaurant from which she's long been absent so that she may start her life over again. It's the simplest sort of emotional spectacle, provoking tears and breathlessness the way no chandelier or helicopter can. So why here is that woman wearing a black jacket that mutes not only her potentially glorious look, but also the invigorating life that should be visibly coursing through her veins? This moment, as well as the roof-raising title song that follows it, has always been the ecstatically theatrical centerpiece of Hello, Dolly!, but in the new Paper Mill Playhouse production (running through July 23), director Mark S. Hoebee wants to bring that woman, that staircase, and that dress (here a ruddy maroon, not an eye-popping crimson) down to Earth.

    But the star-filled sky has always been the proper home of this, one of Broadway's greatest musical comedies. Applying a naturalistic eye to anything in Michael Stewart's laugh-a-minute book or Jerry Herman's bubbly score is missing the point as much here as in the ill-conceived 2004 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof: Sometimes, things need to be a little unreal in order to seem more real onstage. If Hoebee's take on the material seldom rises above staid, you at least sense he's trying to inject as much musical-comedy pizzazz as possible into the show without disrupting the overarching realistic atmosphere. What Gower Champion (director-choreographer of the original 1964 Broadway production) and Lee Roy Reams (director-choreographer of the scrupulously faithful 1994 revival and tour) knew is that daffy, musical-comedy unpredictability creates this world. It shouldn't have to intrude on it.

    The star of choice for those productions was Carol Channing, a living Hirschfeld drawing who rooted the widowed Yonkers matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi, trying to rekindle life, love, and financial security, in emotional truth while otherwise observing reality from a distance. Hoebee has engaged Tovah Feldshuh, a sterling dramatic actress (she was riveting in the one-woman tour de force, Golda's Balcony), as the vivacious Victorian woman hungry for the bankroll and partnership of feed store owner Horace Vandergelder. Bearing a medium-thick Irish brogue, she's got an insatiable hunger for money and helping others, and when she sums up her self-employment philosophy in the words "I meddle," you believe it as never before. Feldshuh's Dolly is the busybody aunt who always knows what everyone is up to. That, sure enough, is Dolly.

    On paper. But she also must be a ringleader, the go-to gal for solving problems from mismatched couples to legal snafus around whom the whole of the show revolves. Feldshuh is not that. She's merely the member of the ensemble with the most stage time and the most central concerns, but draws you into neither her ailing heart (will her deceased husband, Ephraim, "give her away" to start a new life with Vandergelder?) nor her yen to heal the lovesick world around her by any means necessary. Whenever she lifts her (surprisingly ample) voice in song, trumpeting about returning to the world of the living "Before the Parade Passes By" or distracting an ornery Vandergelder (Walter Charles) from discovering his vacationing clerks by appealing to his patriotism with "Motherhood," you always see a great actress singing, not an out-of-the-loop woman blossoming again into colorful self-assuredness.

    Tovah Feldshuh and Walter Charles in Hello, Dolly!Feldshuh, like the rest of the production, is technically proficient: There's nothing wrong, but also nothing resoundingly right. You can discern moments of spirit in Jonathan Rayson as the uptight Cornelius, the older of the two clerks; in Brian Sears, a wide-eyed human milkshake machine who makes younger clerk Barnaby a boy with growing pains who becomes a man with astonishing speed; and Jessica-Snow Wilson as fizzy female foil Minnie Fay. Kate Baldwin, as the hat shop owner (and friend to Minnie) Vandergelder is supposed to marry, has a diffident attitude that doesn't give way to the lush feelings that eventually lead her into someone else's arms. Charles, much like Feldshuh, plays so much of Vandergelder's underlying discontent that he often forgets to be funny. The role needs a comic, not a blustery uncle.

    The sets (Michael Anania), costumes (James Schuette), and lights (Charlie Morrison) are as professional but uninspired as the actors, creating no elevated romping room in which oversized personas could play, even if they were present. Mia Michaels's choreography tends to transforms the sparse dancing corps into disconnected cogs or at worst human folding chairs, never allowing them to be energetic artists who should make you want to jump up onstage and "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" or start "Dancing." At least the orchestra (under Tom Helm's baton) keeps Herman's terrific tunes; if you can keep your toes from tapping almost throughout, you really must explain to me your method of self-restraint.

    On second thought, don't. Hello, Dolly! isn't about containing yourself, but about letting yourself go and embracing the special uniqueness of life that makes it worth living to its fullest as long as it lasts. Hoebee and company, while admirably devoted to discovering the material's inner truth, would have been better served keeping that more firmly in mind.

    Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein

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