From the moment Broadway's Randy Graff steps on to the plain upon the plains (the sprawling stage of the Muny Opera), there's no question that she's in complete control as Dolly Levi. It's her first time back to the 12,000 seat outdoor theater since 1983 and, like Dolly Levi's trip down the staircase of the Harmonia Gardens herself, it's a triumphal return.
Randy Graff and Company
A quick word about that staircase, and one of the great entrances of musical theater: Ms. Graff steps into the spotlight flanked by two haughty red peacocks, each the size of a brontosaurus and trimmed in Persian blue. Later, in the midst of the show's title song, some two-dozen male singers and dancers croon and swirl around. Chaser lights twinkle right on cue, and director Lee Roy Reams is probably cackling with glee.
Mr. Reams directed Carol Channing in the Broadway revival in 1994, and he's reunited here with choreographer Randy Slovacek. Everything spins along charmingly, and unstoppably, in a show that traces its lineage back to Thornton Wilder's Matchmaker. Before that, it was born as the 19th century Austrian farce, Einen Jux will er sich machen by Johann Nestroy. Most recently, the story has been revisited by Tom Stoppard in a work called On the Razzle.
Ms. Graff is matched against Lewis J. Stadlen, the growling, gargling, grandiloquent comic who last appeared in St. Louis as Max Bialystock at the Fox Theater. His Horace Vandergelder withstands each one of Dolly's assaults upon his reason with equally powerful counter attacks, right up until the final moment.
This excellent Muny production has a number of high points, including Irene Malloy's touching rendition of Ribbons Down My Back (Irene is played here by the heart-melting Kate Baldwin). The actress's song was briefly buzzed by a small plane or helicopter overhead, but she appeared unfazed by the inquisitive pilot. Ms. Baldwin is assisted in her pink valentine of a hat shop by Jennifer Cody, a hilarious young lady, as Minnie Fay. (This set, and the very admirable restaurant set, are by Michael Anania.) The director was lucky to get Miss Cody to reprise her role, after their work together at Kansas City's Starlight Theater, where Michele Lee starred as Dolly.
James Clow reappears, less than a month after his turn on the Muny stage in Oklahoma!, and ten times better. For as good as he was as Curly, the part of Cornelius Hackl flatters his comic abilities far more, revealing an intricate comic ingenuity. His partner in crime is Telly Leung as Barnaby, a puppy-dog of an actor who apparently swallowed a lightening bolt during one of the afternoon storms before opening night.
Marching along with Ms. Graff, it's hard to tell where Dolly begins, and where she leaves off. Just as she smoothly presses Vandergelder's wailing niece (Dana Domenick) toward the altar with her artist boyfriend (Kendal Sparks), she gently drags us along too, waving for a call to encore her own title song, and later through a slightly bizarre routine with a mouthful of marshmallows before the courtroom scene. With all her sheer audacity (and some brash, soaring singing), this Dolly will always get her man.
Hello, Dolly! continues through July 15th, 2007, to be followed by Peter Pan. All shows start at 8:15 in Forest Park. For more information, call (314) 361-1900 or visit them on-line at www.muny.org.
Book by Michael Stewart