Tovah Feldshuh's Quixotic Quest for
Also see Bob's review of Thoroughly Modern Millie
A lovely, traditional Hello, Dolly! is gracing the stage at the Paper Mill Playhouse. The only fly in the ointment, and it is not an inconsiderable one, is the misguided attempt of the admirable and talented Tovah Feldshuh to reinterpret the title role.
Tovah Feldshuh and cast of Hello, Dolly!
In the more than forty years that have elapsed since Hello, Dolly! opened on Broadway, I have never given much thought as to the ethnicity of Dolly Gallagher Levi. Yes, now and then, it crossed my mind that our Dolly was Irish and that her late husband may have been Jewish. However, it made no difference from the start because Dolly had been constructed to fit the stage persona of the droll and artful, larger than life, eccentric musical-comedienne Carol Channing. Channing brought to Dolly the same personality and style which had delighted audiences in Lend an Ear and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Thereafter, for better or worse, Dolly became the hard-driving, belting Ethel Merman, the sassy, insouciant singer-comedienne Pearl Bailey, the squeaky clean pin-up Betty Grable, the Hollywood elegant Ginger Rogers, the knock-about, big mouthed Martha Raye, (and, on screen, "Noo Yawk" diva Barbra Streisand). It was never the other way around. David Merrick and Gower Champion clearly knew what they were doing.
Suddenly, here in 2006, there is a lot of buzz in the New York and New Jersey theatrical circles about Tovah Feldshuh interpreting Dolly as an Irish lass from the old sod in the new Paper Mill Playhouse production of Hello, Dolly!. Feldshuh has given any number of interviews in which she has stated that the back story of her Dolly is that of a young woman who emigrated from Ireland to escape a mid-nineteenth century potato famine. She then married Ephraim Levi, a Jewish fella, who made her happy and gave her a pretty good life. However, since his death, things have been hardscrabble for her, and she is now ready to marry for money in order not to have to endure poverty again. Feldshuh's Dolly has what she describes as a "soft" Irish brogue. "Soft" it may well be, but it is also quite pronounced.
It is certainly fitting, often obligatory, for an actor to create a back story in order to understand, empathize with and bring three dimensional life to a character. However, in this case, her back story leads Feldshuh to abandon the star turn flamboyance required to bring the role to full fruition. The few pluses which Feldshuh's interpretation brings to the role come nowhere near to compensating for the loss of the star personality performance which originally made Hello, Dolly! so special. Tovah Feldshuh may or may not have such a Dolly in her. There was one moment early on, when, after flubbing a line, she jocularly ad-libbed "did you know, Mr. Kemper, the last time ... I spoke English ..." that it seemed that she might.
Feldshuh's accent is very distracting (especially when she is singing) as is some of the detail in her performance. It smacks of caricature on the three occasions when she crosses herself. When quoting her late husband, she attempts a Lower East Side Eastern European Jewish accent (also caricaturist) which sounds more Damon Runyon than anything else. Levi was a bon vivant, who regularly took Dolly to the fanciest and most expensive restaurant in New York. He was most certainly a cultured German or Austrian. In fact, the Jews whose accent she tries to approximate were not to arrive in New York until about twenty years later. Lost in Feldshuh's back story is the inherent element in the libretto that even in her reduced economic condition, Dolly is lowering her standards when she sets her sights on the wealthy Vandergelder. There are a couple of dramatic moments when her interpretation adds pathos (when she first "speaks" to Ephraim, and her short monologue about the differences between having no money and a little money, and between the latter and having a lot of money). However, although Feldshuh has a lovely voice, she doesn't display the vocal size and power to maximize the effect of Dolly's anthem "Before the Parade Passes By." Her most effective number is the softer, more endearing "So Long, Dearie." "Love, Look in My Window," which was cut from the show before it opened and was restored for Ethel Merman when she played Dolly on Broadway, has again been restored here. It is a dull song which slows down the show and is counter to Dolly's outlook on her life as delineated in the script (although Feldshuh has opined that it brings out feelings which Dolly has, but does not otherwise express).
Walter Charles is a fine Horace Vandergelder. As the Yonkers feed and grain store merchant whom Dolly the matchmaker has set her eyes on for herself, Charles sings strongly and gets all the comedic line readings just right. However, he does lack the natural comic persona to be an ideal Vandergelder.
Which brings us to the smooth, vocally lilting performance of Kate Baldwin as Irene Molloy. Plunging her shop into darkness for the operetta-like opening section of "Ribbons Down My Back" only slightly delays the pleasure which the audience derives from her fine work. Jessica-Snow Wilson is a totally delightful comic dynamo as her bubbly shop assistant, Minnie Fay.
Although the billboards and program cover page emblazon Tovah Feldshuh's name over the title, it is worth noting that, on the program title page, Feldshuh is not billed above the title, but is listed alphabetically under the title among the ten principal actors. It is very generous of Feldshuh to share billing thusly with her Dolly! cohorts, and probably reflects her determination not to perform a star turn here. In addition to those already named, these principals include Anna McNeely (Ernestina), who also is Feldshuh's understudy; Andrew Gehling (Ambrose Kemper); Lauren Marcus (Ermengarde); and William Solo (Rudolph).
There is a gentle beauty to much of the production which creates a feel good aura. The grace, smoothness and gentle humor of Mia Michaels' choreography is a big asset. The dances which are integral to "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," "Dancing" and "Elegance" are transporting in their smooth, sweeping beauty. However, her "Waiter's Gallop" seems abridged, less complex, less precise and less amusing than it is in memory. Actually, the entire Harmonia Gardens scene feels somewhat rushed and truncated. The delight of the dance numbers is significantly enhanced by the beauty of the bright and colorful costumes of James Schuette and the lovely set design. The elaborate costumes for Feldshuh (the two major ones feature red and black) are quite spectacular.
A hearty welcome home to the wonderful former Paper Mill resident set designer Michael Anania. His open, airy design of this production is quite beautiful. For the most part, the sets are lovely, evocative and inviting. The wood set for Vandergelder's store and the lattice wood one for Irene Molloy's millinery shop are excellent pieces of work as is the airy cut out Yonkers railway station with its moving train. A real beauty is the water colored dimensionally drawn full stage rear backdrop with what appears to be Washington Square Park off in the distance for the 14th Street Parade first act finale. A couple of times, inexplicably, a black backdrop is employed (i.e., the courtroom scene in act two) when a more colorful one would have been more inviting.
Mark Hoebee has directed a fluid, gentle and lovely production. While he may have had some re-invention in mind with his gentle approach, Hoebee has ended up with a very traditional, entertaining Hello, Dolly!. He is at his directorial best in the classic farce scene in the millinery shop when Cornelius and Barnaby are in and out of a wardrobe trying to avoid detection by Vandergelder. Hoebee's production has largely preserved the strengths of the Michael Stewart, Jerry Herman and Gower Champion original.
As for the admirable Feldshuh, her quest for a more realistic, Irish immigrant Dolly is likely to continue to prove quixotic. After all, Hello, Dolly! was never meant to be Rags, Ragtime or even Titanic (with its three yearning young Irish Kates). Hello, Dolly! is not, and likely never can be, an immigrant musical.
Hello, Dolly! is based on Thornton Wilder's 1955 brilliant farce and social satire The Matchmaker (which has not been seen in a major revival in far too long), which is based in turn on Wilder's 1938 failed The Merchant of Yonkers. Wilder based that play on a 1842 Austrian farce He Wants to Have a Lark which was based on a 1835 English farce A Day Well Spent. Wilder shifted the emphasis from the merchant to the matchmaker in his 1955 version, adding character, plot elements and dialogue from Moliere's The Miser)
Hello, Dolly! continues performances (Wed/Thurs/Sun 7:30 p.m.; Fri/Sat 8 p.m.; Wed (7/12&7/19)/Thurs/Sat/Sun 2 p.m.) through July 23, 2006 at the Paper mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343/ online www.papermill.org.
Hello, Dolly! Book by Michael Stewart; Music and Lyrics by Jerry