Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Hello, Dolly!Theater Latté Da
Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Daughter of the Regiment, and Blues for an Alabama Sky
For decades many viewed Hello, Dolly! as a musical for our parents' generation and emblematic of "old school," arriving in 1964 and set at the turn of the century (that's 19th to 20th century). There was a megaton of chatter about the 2017 Broadway revival but, come on, would that production have been a sensation had it not cast the inimitable Bette Midler in her first–and likely last–ever lead Broadway musical role? Even so, perhaps that attention to the Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book) work drew Theater Latté Da to consider how it would look on stage in their intimate Ritz Theater. Whatever prompted making Hello, Dolly! the centerpiece of their 2022-2023 season, it was a terrific decision, and its realization is a cause to celebrate.
Hello, Dolly! may be well worn, but it is not a bit tired, at least not in Latté Da's reliable hands. Herman's score is tuneful and cheery. Every number can be easily hummed or whistled, for those so inclined. Moreover, it is unstintingly optimistic. The one song that could be described as "quiet," the yearning, "Ribbons Down My Back," sweetly expresses the hope of finding love. Not one of the show's dozen-plus songs summons a dark thought. Doesn't that sound like a welcome elixir? It is also very funny, with humor that stands the test of time because it is not topical, is not tied to current events or societal trends. Hello, Dolly!'s bright humor is based on the temperament of its characters and on comically devised situations, most of which are drawn directly from Thornton Wilder's 1954 play The Matchmaker, on which the musical is based, skillfully transferred into Stewart's book and given every opportunity to sail off the stage in this production.
The original 1964 Hello, Dolly! was directed and choreographed by an inspired master of both, Gower Champion. Latté Da's production is likewise under the helm of a director-choreographer, Kelli Foster Warder. The blending of those two key jobs makes utmost sense in this show. A musicality wafts in the air, even when not a note is being played, and continuous attention to movement, even when it is not dance, allows the narrative to seamlessly, giddily glide forward. This brilliant work by Warder follows on the heels of her exquisitely staged Jelly's Last Jam at Latté Da last spring.
Another element of Latté Da's success is its casting, starting with Regina Marie Williams as Dolly Levi. Williams, we all know, has the throaty voice and presence to pull off a showstopping first-act closer like "Before the Parade Passes By," the coy "I Put My Hand In," a vibrant waltz ("Dancing"), a sashaying eleven o'clock number such as "So Long Dearie," and the anthemic title tune, complete with a regal entrance and descent down a set of stairs. That, owing to Latté Da's small scale, those steps number only three, matters not–Williams and company make it a ravishing occasion. What some may not have seen before are her comic chops, which she does not as often get to display. She vibrantly delivers the rich humor, while also maintaining the warmth that makes Dolly such an irresistible character. And yet, Williams brings an unusual depth of poignancy to Dolly's one-sided conversations with her deceased husband Ephraim, explaining why she must move on with her life and asking for his blessing.
Dolly's comic foil, a tight-fisted merchant of Yonkers, New York, named Horace Vandergelder, on whom she sets her matchmaker's eyes right from the start, is played by T. Mychael Rambo, an actor known for his warmth and gentility, which means he is stridently cast against type. Vandergelder only sings twice–early on, expressing his male chauvinist view on marriage, and at the end, in a tenderly realized reprise of "It Only Takes a Moment." Between his first blustery appearance and his closing besotted moment on stage, Rambo animates Vandergelder's arc, showing his resistance to the force of nature that is Dolly Levi dissolve inch by inch; it is a charming, altogether winning performance, while allowing Rambo to share his swell voice at least briefly with the audience.
Typically, golden age musicals have a "second couple," whose romantic travails provide filagree around the central plot. Hello, Dolly! goes all out, with three such couples. There is Vandergelder's naive head clerk Cornelius Hackl (Reed Sigmund), who rebels against the tranquility of Yonkers to finally experience adventure by hopping the train to New York City with the even more naive assistant clerk Barnaby Tucker (Brian Kim McCormick) in tow, cuing up one of the most happily hopeful production numbers in all the wide world of musical theater, "Put on Your Sunday Clothes." The two young men find their adventure by seeking shelter in a millinery shop where they meet milliner Irene Malloy (China Brickey) and her assistant, Minnie Fay (Anna Hashizume). All four actors are fabulous in their respective roles. Brickey sings the aforementioned "Ribbons Down My Back" beautifully, and Sigmund brings his brilliance for physical comedy (honed in his abundant work at Children's Theatre Company) to the intrepid Cornelius.
Vandergelder's weepy niece Ermengarde (Janely Rodriguez) and her struggling artist boyfriend Ambrose (Riley McNutt) are the third couple, struggling to overcome Uncle Horace's opposition. Both Rodriguez and McNutt are fine actors and singers who bring heart to these smaller roles. Along with all of the above, Twin Cities veteran actor Sally Wingert gamely pops up in about a half dozen roles, from a would-be match for Vandergelder, Ernestina Money, to snooty chef to municipal court judge, drawing laughs with some of the disguises those parts require.
Dance couple Elly Stahlke and Kyle Weiler are given numerous opportunities to embellish Herman's score with balletic choreography. Along with ensemble member Brian Kim McCormick, Stahlke, Weiler and Wingert form a spirited ensemble, often supplemented by other cast members taking on various guises, and notably appear as a line of singing and dancing waiters greeting Dolly upon her return, after years away, to her beloved Harmonia Gardens Restaurant.
Sanford Moore conducts four other musicians who bring the Herman score to vibrant life, and bring a wicked jazz riff to the entr'acte and walk-out music. Rack Hamson has designed glorious costumes for all concerned, and most especially, fabulous gowns for the leading lady. Eli Sherlock has created a charming set that brings to mind a flowery wallpapered drawing room in a well preserved ancestral home, all bathed in green hues, with side panels that spin around to reveal Vandergelder's Hay and Feed shop, Irene Malloy's hat shop, and two dining alcoves for the couples supping at Harmonia Gardens. Jeff Brown's lighting, Kevin Springer's sound, Abbee Warmboe's props, and Emma Gustafson's wig, makeup and hair designs are all in perfect harmony with the production.
The casting of this production with a Black Dolly and Vandergelder, and with BIPOC actors in many of the other roles, has garnered some press, noted as a good thing, as it makes the historically accurate point that people of those different races were all present in 1890s New York City. While that is true (though it may be less true that people of those different backgrounds easily mingled, dined, and worked together), the primary point it makes is that each of these actors is extremely talented and a superb casting choice, and they all work together as a brilliant ensemble. I would describe it not as color-blind casting, but as casting that intentionally embraces all colors.
I won't be surprised if tickets for this production sell quickly, so don't spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not to go–get your tickets now. This is the real thing, a genuine hit that strikes all the right notes, and sends everyone out of the theater a happier person for having seen it.
Hello, Dolly! runs through March 19, 2023, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $45 - $71. Student and educator rush tickets, $15, subject to availability, one hour before curtain, two tickets per ID, cash only. 20% discount for military personnel and veterans (up to four tickets). Members of Actor's Equity Association (AEA), the Union of Professional Actors, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), and the Twin Cities Musicians Union - $20 with union member ID card, two tickets per member. Tickets for zip code 55413 neighborhood residents are available for $13 at the box office during regular business hours, cash only. For tickets and information, please call 612-339-3303 or visit theaterlatteda.com.
Book: Michael Stewart, based on the play The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder; Music and Lyrics: Jerry Herman; Original Production Directed and Choreographed by Gower Champion, and Produced by David Merrick and Champion Five, Inc.; Director and Choreographer: Kelli Foster Warder; Music Director: Sanford Moore; Scenic Design: Eli Sherlock; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Assistant Costume Designer: Amber Brown; Wigs, Hair and Makeup Design: Emma Gustafson; Lighting Design: Jeff Brown; Sound Design: Kevin Springer; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Music Supervisor: Jason Hansen; Production Stage Manager: Shelby Reddig; Assistant Stage Managers: Chloe Volna-Rich and Austin Schoenfelder.
Cast: China Brickey (Irene Malloy), Anna Hashizume (Minnie Fay/ensemble), Jordan M Leggett (ensemble/Barnaby understudy), Brian Kim McCormick (Barnaby Tucker), Riley McNutt (Ambrose /Cornelius understudy), T. Mychael Rambo (Horace Vandergelder), Janely Rodriguez (Ermengarde/ensemble/Irene Malloy understudy), Reed Sigmund (Cornelius Hackl), Elly Stahlke (ensemble/dance captain), Kyle Weiler (ensemble), Regina Marie Williams (Dolly Levi), Sally Wingert (Ernestina/ensemble).