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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Risky Casting Pays off in 5th Avenue's Hello, Dolly!

Hello, Dolly!
Pat Cashman and Jenifer Lewis
Broadway, film and television star Jenifer Lewis was a safe bet to don the formidable shoes of Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman and many others as Dolly Gallagher Levi, and that bet pays off in the David Armstrong directed and choreographed Hello, Dolly!. But casting Pat Cashman, a veteran radio and TV personality with little or no stage experiences as skinflint Horace Vandergelder? Or Suzanne Bouchard, one of Seattle's primo purveyors of sophisticated women's roles from Shakespeare to Coward in the open-hearted and vocally challenging soprano role of Irene Molloy? That was the gamble. Well, the payoff is on 5th Avenue stage in a satisfying Dolly! with some captivating choreography that does the memory of the show's original director/choreographer Gower Champion proud without slavishly mimicking his work.

The long-running sixties Broadway musical based on Thornton (Our Town) Wilder's The Matchmaker, with book by Michael Stewart and an eternally hummable Jerry Herman score, gives us a well-spent day in the life of widowed, middle-aged matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi, who travels to Yonkers from Manhattan to ensure her chances to become the second wife of Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder, and in the process sets the wheels turning for three other romances that figure heavily in the plot. Though milliner Irene Molloy is allegedly a match for Vandergelder, she becomes smitten with his naïve charming chief clerk, Cornelius Hackl, and her assistant Minnie Fay is an obvious match for Cornelius' goofy sidekick Barnaby Tucker. There's also the matter of getting Vandergelder's consent to the union of his simpering young niece Ermengarde and her artist beau Ambrose. Nothing at all unexpected really happens in the tale, as we know from the outset that Dolly is a force of nature not to be denied, and apparently a long absent favorite at the swanky and pricy Harmonia Gardens Café, where the renowned title song and act two piece de resistance takes place.

Jenifer Lewis headlines a talented multi-racial cast (the days of an anachronistic all-black Hello, Dolly! mounted by sly producer David Merrick are happily in the past) and Dolly, oddly, isn't given that much focus early in the show, following the character establishing opening "I Put My Hand In." A bit of opening night tentativeness was clear in Lewis' early scenes, but once Dolly went from brash to reflective in her monologue with her late husband which leads into a rousing "Before the Parade Passes By", Lewis was in her comfort zone and she, to borrow words about another Herman musical heroine, "charms the husk right off of the corn." The title song, both in her commanding, cunning and full-throated rendition as well as in the admirable Armstrong staging is a deserved showstopper, worthy of the encore and a half it receives. Her dinner scene with the increasingly flummoxed Cashman is funny with a capital "f," when if you've seen this venerable musical a lot, and her "So Long, Dearie" eleven o'clock number is choice indeed. Up against Cashman's hilarious, harrumphing and yet humane Horace, Lewis is never able to coast in the role. Cashman is as curmudgeonly a Vandergelder as you'd want, yet you see that there is something in him, beyond his financial status, that attracts Mrs. Levi. There is honest to goodness sexual tension between the two, G-rated, but there nonetheless.

Greg Allen was swell in the role of Cornelius Hackl a few seasons back, and he is perhaps even better revisiting it here. He is an acting, singing and dancing joy and delivers a tender "It Only Takes a Moment" to Suzanne Bouchard's beaming Irene. Bouchard plays Mrs. Molloy with a dash more vim and vinegar than is typical in the role, clearly a woman ready to cease being a widow herself and remarry, though the bashful Cornelius may not have been what she was expecting in a second husband. Her "Ribbons Down My Back" solo is wistful, warm and sung with tenderness and assurance. Bouchard may not have a huge voice, but she uses it here and throughout the show to maximum effect, employing all of her well-honed acting skills to the lyrics. Mo Brady is a bit too self-confident and mature as the bumpkin Barnaby, but his song and dance skills are in fine shape, as are those of his co-star Tracee Beazer as the chatterbox Minnie Fay, who also does an especially appealing job with her opening monologue, which introduces us to her friend and boss, Irene. All four actors open act two with a fizzy frolic through the "Elegance" quartet. Krystal Armstrong's likable presence keeps Ermengarde's weeping and wailing funny rather than annoying, and she is well paired with Matt Owens' earnestly amusing Ambrose.

Richard Gray, as the Teutonic headwaiter Rudolph, is equal parts Fritz Feld and Will Ferrell, and nearly out-divas Lewis with his unabashed twinkling glee cavorting in the title number, while Julie Briskman is a hoot as the brassily bawdy Ernestina Money, a faux fiancée for Horace. The singing/dancing ensemble is entirely able and satisfying, though it is the men appearing in the "Waiter's Gallop" who impress most with their unflagging energy and athletically charged high-stepping.

Musical director/conductor Joel Fram makes sure the entire cast's diction is beyond impeccable, and his orchestra sounds full and fabulous. Michael Anania's set design is notable for its fluidity, and for an especially elegant and glittering façade of the Harmonia Gardens. James Schuette's costumes for Dolly are oddly variable, but the outfit for the title song makes up for all shortcomings, and the all white ensemble costumes for "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" are crisply handsome.

Hello, Dolly! when done with freshness and verve as it is here is always a welcome visitor, and how nice that, thanks to the use of some of its Jerry Herman songs in the film Wall-E, audience members who weren't around when the show was young are discovering where those open-hearted melodies and lyrics originated.

Hello, Dolly! plays Tuesdays-Sundays through March 29 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $22-$81 (888-584-4849 or www.5thavenue.org).


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David Edward Hughes



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