Glittery, but Not Grabbing: HELLO DOLLY!

“Hello, Dolly!” Jacquelyn Piro Donovan (Dolly Gallagher Levi) and the ensemble of North Shore Music Theatre’s production of HELLO, DOLLY! Photo by Paul Lyden

Hello Dolly!, book by Michael Stewart, music by Jerry Herman, North Shore Music Theatre, 6/12/12-6/24/12, http://www.nsmt.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=969.

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

Since Elizabethan times, some plays have been built around the concept of a character as a force of nature.  As a playwright, it’s often a good strategy that allows a great actor to cover plotline foibles with a powerful performance.  But such a strategy also can backfire, because when your lead can’t will the play to life, a weak plot is exposed all the more. 

North Shore Music Theatre’s production of Hello Dolly! falls victim to this trap.  The script’s plotline is wafer-thin and built for silly spectacle, and director Charles Repole’s staging muddles the few real, albeit lightweight, themes the script offers.  These factors put an unfair weight on lead actress Jacquelyn Piro Donovan to carry the show as Dolly, and she fails to create a force-of-nature character that can breathe life into the play’s two-dimensional world.

From the first scene, we must believe that Dolly is two steps ahead of the rest of the world.  She is a first-rate matchmaker with a thousand other side businesses, but she is also a widow who is growing tired of being alone and living hand to mouth.  While the other characters who share the stage with Dolly are particularly, and sometimes charmingly, clueless, Donovan fails to bring an inner light to her character to make us believe she can see possibility that others can’t.  Instead, theatergoers must decide to care about her because they are told to, and to Donovan’s credit, many do.

But without Dolly as the center of gravity, the first act lags as it focuses desperate characters looking for matrimony as a means to escape their sad existences.  The second act picks up steam when it abandons much of the pretense of plot for joyous song and dance.  We never know why all the waiters are so excited that Dolly has come back to their restaurant, but we can sure enjoy them dancing around about it.

The overall production tends to feel a bit like a cross between vaudeville and a faded episode of Three’s Company, and many of the cast can’t decide to go over-the-top enough to pull it off.  Those that take the plunge end up reminding one of silly T.V. characters, but in a good way.  Matt Loehr channels John Ritter’s best slapstick sensibilities as Cornelius Hackle, a restless clerk, and Eric Mann is a pleasure in boyishness as Barnaby Tucker, even though it stretches credulity that the character is supposed to be 17.  Gary Beach picks up steam as Horace Vandergelder, a crotchety love interest of Dolly’s; watching Horace grumbling around on stage is like watching the petulant love-child of Ebenezer Scrooge and Yosemite Sam.

But overall, there was an absence of fun onstage during opening night. Props went awry, makeup bordered on garish and costuming seemed timeless, but not in a good way.  Among the actors, there was a distinct feeling of holding one’s breath and plowing through.

A side note: One’s mind tends to wander when a production doesn’t hit its mark, and it occurred to me that Donovan, while not quite owning Dolly, seemed perfect in her singing style and demeanor for the character of Miss Hannigan in Annie.  So it was pleasing to learn during intermission that she has that role next at North Shore.  It might be best to hold off and see her then.

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