Dressed in a voluptuous red gown and feathery chapeau, Dolly Gallagher Levi glides down the stairs of New York’s fanciest restaurant of the day as if her life depends on it. And frankly, it kind of does. It is 1885, and the long-widowed matchmaker is here to ensnare Horace Vandergelder, a cranky old Yonkers shopkeeper on a quest for a wife.
Serenaded by an army of fawning waiters, the seemingly unstoppable Dolly assures her admirers she’ll “never go away.” And sure enough, 56 years after arriving on the Great White Way, “Hello, Dolly!” is living up to that prophetic lyric by songwriter Jerry Herman, who created the title role for Carol Channing and lived to see it revitalized by Bette Midler in 2017. Herman died in December. But “Hello, Dolly!” — based on Thornton Wilder’s 1954 farce “The Matchmaker,” with a book by Michael Stewart — seems preordained to continue in perpetuity.
And based on the national tour that galumphed into the Fox Theatre on Tuesday night, I’m OK with that.
Directed by Jerry Zaks, choreographed by Warren Carlyle and styled to the nines by Santo Loquasto, the legendary designer who created the sets and costumes for the Midler revival, “Hello, Dolly!” remains a delightfully entertaining comedic bonbon.
Still, I don’t envy Carolee Carmello, the seasoned Broadway trouper who is required to step into the shoes of Channing and Midler, Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley. Though opening night was a little slow to snap into place, Carmello (“Tuck Everlasting,” “Sister Act”) ultimately rose to the occasion. At her best, she can belt like Ethel Merman, turn on the feminine charm that allows her character to pull off her mercenary shenanigans, and hold her own with the scenery-chewing but quite excellent John Bolton, who plays “half-millionaire” Vandergelder.
As the story begins, the curmudgeonly and parsimonious old Vandergelder plans to marry Manhattan milliner Irene Molloy (the lovely Jenny Hickman, standing in for Analisa Leaming on Tuesday night), but Dolly has other plans. Vandergelder’s big number, “It Takes a Woman,” boasts, “It takes a woman all powdered and pink/to joyously clean out the drain in the sink.” And it goes downhill from there. Alas, what may have been an acceptable trope in the 1960s sounds jarringly incorrect in today’s world. I don’t think I’m being too nit-picky to say that “Hello, Dolly!” may have to fine-tune, or scrape, this misogynistic ditty in future productions.
Dolly, for all her energy, has tired of her role as meddler extraordinaire with a business card for every occasion. She’s looking to find a companion “Before the Parade Passes By.” Though the story is cloaked in all manner of physical comedy and slapstick, it is essentially about finding an antidote to loneliness.
Carmello finds the poignance in Dolly, but what fun there is in the journey.
In one terrific sequence, Vandergelder’s hooky-playing employees Cornelius (Daniel Beeman) and Barnaby (Sean Burns) find themselves hiding in closets and under tables when the old grump pays a call at Irene’s hat shop. By Dolly’s design, Vandergelder leaves in a huff, taking his (unshelled) chocolate-covered peanuts with him, and the penniless Cornelius and Barnaby are left to squire Irene and her assistant Minnie (Chelsea Cree Groen) for the night. In a company of strong singers, actors and dancers, Beeman really shines.
And then there’s that grand finale at Harmonia Gardens. As a prelude to Dolly’s big entrance, the ensemble, posing as waiters, chefs and the maitre d’hotel, runs circles around the place with champagne buckets, knives, trays of food, etc. Indeed, “Hello, Dolly!” may be the only musical you’ll ever see in which a cook spearing a chicken is a precisely choreographed move.
But the real lulu is Dolly’s orgy of eating. She gnaws a turkey bone, drinks the gravy and inhales the potato puffs in a lunatic episode that brings back memories of Channing (whom I saw at the Fox in the mid-1990s).
Anyone looking for examples of the grand continuum of musical theater history has a couple of noteworthy bookends on Atlanta stages through Sunday. If the Alliance Theatre’s technically sophisticated “Maybe Happy Ending” represents the future of the genre, “Hello, Dolly!” shines a light on the showboat-size spectacles of yesteryear. Forgive the cliche, but for better or ill, they just don’t make ‘em like “Dolly” anymore.
So welcome back, Dolly. (“Look at the old girl now, fellas.”) It’s really nice to have you back where you belong.
7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $31-$125. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org
Bottom line: All the wows
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.