When Wichita’s Forum Theatre decided to revive the Broadway classic “Hello, Dolly!” for essentially a 50th anniversary production, director Rick Bumgardner said he couldn’t imagine anybody but Karla Burns as lovably meddlesome matchmaker Dolly Levi.
“Karla is a Wichita institution,” Bumgardner said of the local actress who made it big both on Broadway and in London before returning home a few years ago. “She is our Carol Channing, our Pearl Bailey.”
Channing was the original Dolly in 1964, and Bailey headed a legendary black-cast version in 1968. Both won Tony Awards for their indelible performances.
“ ‘Dolly!’ is one of my favorite shows, which I’ve seen a million and one times, so I couldn’t wait to direct my best friend on the planet for the past 30 years in it,” Bumgardner said.
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The result is a racially diverse cast headed by a black Dolly as the show by Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart goes into its 50th year.
“But it was all colorblind casting based on who would do each role the best,” Bumgardner said. “The show just celebrated its 49th anniversary in January, so for this 50th year, we decided to start with Karla — the reason for doing the show — and let the rest fall into place.”
Playing Horace Vandergelder, the wealthy but crusty merchant who hires matchmaker Dolly to help him find a suitable wife, is Huron Breaux. Stephen Hitchcock is Cornelius, and Jordon Snow is Barnaby, two of Vandergelder’s put-upon employees who escape his attention long enough to have an adventure with a hat shop owner, Irene. She is played by Megan Parsley, and her giddy, giggly assistant, Minnie Fay, is played by Lindsay Sutton.
Mary Halsig is Ernestina, a fake heiress Dolly hires to give Horace an attitude adjustment. Joy Smith is Ermengarde, Vandergelder’s mousy niece. Jacob Wasson is Ambrose, the niece’s unapproved boyfriend, and Jeff Templin is Rudolph, spiffy head waiter for the big “Hello, Dolly!” number.
“When we first talked about doing it, I was concerned about the size of the show,” Bumgardner said. “But Kathy (Page-Hauptman, co-artistic director of the Forum) said to think ‘storybook’ instead of ‘spectacle.’ We decided to approach it as the story of a woman who makes love matches rather than as just a vehicle for big production numbers. We are stressing the intimacy and the relationships while still enjoying the music.”
Among familiar songs are “It Takes a Woman,” “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and the show-stopping “Hello, Dolly!”
For her part, Burns said, “It never crossed my mind to be intimidated” by comparisons with such well-known former Dollys as Channing, Bailey and even Barbra Streisand in the 1969 movie.
“I don’t worry about comparing myself to them because they were all so different in their interpretations. They were nothing alike, so that leaves lots of room for me to find her personality myself,” said Burns, best known for her Tony-nominated, Olivier-winning role as Queenie in “Show Boat.” “It’s important for me to find what I can bring to the role. I can’t tell you how honored and blessed I am to be able to sing this wonderful music.”
Burns describes Dolly as smart, inquisitive and fearless about tackling anything she sets her mind to. She also said Dolly is determined to make a difference in people’s lives through her mentoring — and her meddling.
“I can relate to that because when I teach (vocal students), it’s very much like Dolly’s ‘you-can-do-it’ attitude. I don’t like to think of it as meddling,” Burns said with a laugh. “Rather, it’s asserting my help.”
As the gruff, inflexible and chauvinistic Vandergelder, Breaux said his challenge is finding what Dolly sees in his character — besides his money — that would make her set her own sights on him.
“They say (in the script) that he’s charming, but that he just doesn’t know it,” Breaux said with a chuckle. “I’m like that because I’m pretty introverted. I am one of the least charming people I know. But I’ve had to be available to people as a choir music director (currently with St. Mary’s Cathedral), so I guess I do have a way with people.”
Most of the challenge of bringing Vandergelder to life, Breaux said, is cultural: “This Southern Creole boy from Louisiana is learning to interpret a Yankee demeanor.”
What particularly helps solidify his character, said Breaux, who has performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center, is interaction with Burns, a longtime friend.
“We have learned to relate to each other,” he said about appearing together in such shows as “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” “Horace is gruff, to the point and always seems to get his way. Karla is helping me find what Dolly sees in him, to find the points where the charm blings through.”
Costumes are by Page-Hauptman. The music director is Tim Raymond. Members of the Air Capital Barbershop Quartet, plus members of local church choirs, will be special guest singers for the “Hello, Dolly!” number.