Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Nostalgia as a sort of comfort food is the main course in the touring production of Hello, Dolly! that opened Wednesday night at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco for a four-week run. In this instance, though, nostalgia is a two-edged sword. More on that in a bit, but for now, let's revelas I did in seeing this productionin the joy of Jerry Herman's marvelous music and lyrics, the masterful direction of Jerry Zaks, the colorful and kinetic designs of Santo Loquasto, and the brilliance of the cast supporting Betty Buckley's star turn as matchmaker Dolly Levi.
Hello, Dolly! occupies an elevated rung on the ladder of American musicals. As the ad currently running on Bay Area televisions says, "many Broadway legends have starred in Hello, Dolly!": Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Barbra Streisand (in the movie), Pearl Bailey and, most recently, Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters. Stop a random person on the street and ask them to complete the sentence, "Well, hello Dolly. It's so nice to have you back..." and I'm guessing a significant percentage (of those over, say, 30) would be able to correctly fill in the blank.
With a show as iconic as this, it's a delight to report that this production lives up to that status in almost every aspect. Visually, the show is gob-smackingly wondrous. From the opening street scene with its (human) horse-drawn carriage to the wonderfully overstuffed retail establishment of Dolly's love interest, the "half-millionaire" Horace Vandergelder, to the steam train that brings the Yonkers residents to New York City, to the magnificence of the Harmonia Gardens restaurant scene, designer Santo Loquasto reveals once again why he is in such high demand by producers. How he found the time to also create the stunningly kaleidoscopic costumes is a mystery I have little hope of solving. For the number "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," I half expected to see battery packs attached to the suits and gowns, so aglow they are with color.
The cast surrounding Ms. Buckley is magnificent, milking enormous laughs from lines that might not seem funny on the page, but with the actors' timing and technique become showstoppers. Leading the way is Broadway veteran Lewis J. Stadlen as Horace Vandergelder. What the man does with his eyebrows and mustache is worth the price of admission all on its own. Kristen Hahn's first lines as Minnie Fay had me struggling to catch my breath between guffaws, and Jess LeProtto's turn as shop clerk Barnaby Tucker seemed to sneak up on the audience over the course of the evening; what seemed like a sidekick performance built and built until he got one of the loudest ovations at the curtain call. Nic Rouleau's performance of Cornelius Hackl, chief clerk in Vandergelder's employ, left me in awe. His gorgeous, soaring tenor fills the Golden Gate to the rafters, and his comic skills are impeccable.
They are all in service of a story that is exactly what nostalgia "sufferers" often look to musical comedy for. It's romantic, far-fetched, silly, overly-reliant on coincidenceyet undeniably charming and smile inducing. Dolly Levi is a matchmaker, a woman who "arranges thingslike furniture and daffodils and lives." She has an almost Mary Poppins-like magical air about her; when she hands someone her business card, it is always perfectly aligned to that person's needs: "33-year-old chief clerks taught how to dance," for example. Her goal in the show is simple: to help the other characters find love, and to secure the hand of rich widower Horace Vandergelder for herself.
It would be easy to dislike many of the characters of Hello, Dolly!. Ms. Levi herself openly claims she wants to marry Horace for his money, and Horace sings (in "It Takes a Woman") that the primary thing he wants a wife for is to do all the dirty work around the house. Cornelius and Barnaby sabotage the store so they can sneak off to New York, and Irene Molloy (Analisa Leaming), Vandergelder's intended before Dolly steps in, whines about her job as a hatmaker. Yet, somehow we manage to love and identify with all these self-interested people, likely as a side effect of late-stage nostalgia.
It's soothing in its way, but as I said, nostalgia can wound, as well. And it's Betty Buckley's performance that is wielding the blade here. I remember a night at Davies Symphony Hall when Ms. Buckley wowed us with her well-loved voice and gorgeous phrasings. But those skills were not on display here on opening night. I hope they are not gone forever, but on stage at the Golden Gate, Buckley simply lacks the power and versatility she has shown in the past and her singing pales compared to that of most of her fellow cast members. In interviews she has said she relished the opportunity to play a comic role and to learn from comic master Jerry Zaks. But the lessons either haven't sunk in, or perhaps never will. Comedy is a delicate, touchy thing, easily bruised or even crippled if not handled properly. Though she gets some laughs, Buckley underplays many of her comic moments and pushes far too hard on others. In a scene where she is relishing the last morsels of her meal at the Harmonia Gardens, she returns to the same well over and over until it is dry to the point of desiccation. After she has sipped from the gravy boat for the third time (the first time got a terrific laugh), I thought "OK, you pushed that one time too many." Then she does the same bit of business three more times.
Despite Buckley's inability to own the stage in the way a diva must, this Hello, Dolly! is saved by pretty much everything else around herexcept for the very dated portrayals of women and their relationships with men. It's joyous and colorful and filled with wonderful songs, and in this case, nostalgia might be just what the doctor ordered.
Hello, Dolly!, through March 17, 2019, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56 - $256, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting SHNSF.com. For more information on the tour, visit hellodollyonbroadway.com/tour