There’s a reason that “Hello, Dolly!” has been around for 50 years, escaping that same quaint Yonkers feed store for an adventure in the Big City, marching in that same 14th Street parade before the world passes by, and grandly gliding down that same gilded staircase into Harmonia Gardens for a long-awaited homecoming.
Generation after generation keep coming back because “Dolly” is such a crowd-pleaser. It’s one of a handful of classic Broadway shows – like “Oklahoma,” “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music” – that never grow stale, never grow tired, always seem a comfortable touchstone in a constantly changing culture and society.
The show has become so familiar and beloved that it would seem to be foolproof and critic-proof. And while the material can withstand the test of time, it’s always a question of whether the revival is worthy of the legend.
Fortunately for Music Theatre Wichita’s new version – the first in 21 years – director Mark Madama and his indefatigable cast of 49 and music director Thomas W. Douglas and his orchestra of 21 (a rare full sound when today’s Broadway standard is half that because of costs) remain affectionately faithful to Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s masterwork. They all mesh beautifully to deliver the goods as a big, colorful, tuneful valentine to romance and turn-of-the-century Americana.
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It’s a wow of a way to cap the 44th season for Music Theatre Wichita.
Broadway and TV star Kathryn Kendall, who was last here in “Gypsy,” is a fiery-haired powerhouse as the matchmaking heroine, Dolly Gallagher Levi, a delightfully meddlesome widow who loves to arrange things, “like furniture, daffodils and lives.” Kendall has a big, brassy voice that can raise the roof for the show-stopping “Hello, Dolly!” She can also go sweetly tender and poignant in “Before the Parade Passes By.”
And Kendall’s comic timing is well honed as she bustles about the stage at an Energizer Bunny clip, dispensing tongue-in-cheek wisdom like “Marriage is a bribe to make a housekeeper believe she is a householder” and “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.”
Broadway veteran Bill Nolte (“The Producers,” “La Cage aux Folles” revival), making his MTW debut, is a great, gruff comic foil as Horace Vandergelder, Yonkers’ widowed, “well-known half-a-millionaire,” who is seeking a suitable second wife. Nolte is hilarious as he mugs – a la Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden – a bug-eyed look of outraged surprise whenever Dolly upsets his routine, which is frequently.
Nolte is also a terrific baritone, leading the male chorus in the jaunty “It Takes a Woman” and surprising us with his own rendition of “Hello, Dolly!” for a romantic reprise. Most people are so conditioned to Walter Matthau’s growly vocalizing in the 1969 movie version that it’s a genuine pleasure to hear a spectacular voice in the role.
Wichita favorite Steve Hitchcock, who has done everything from the creepy emcee of “Cabaret” to countless heroes at Mosley Street Melodrama, is a klutzy charmer as Cornelius, Vandergelder’s overworked, underappreciated clerk who, at 33, believes he deserves one night off a week. Hitchcock has a solid and evocative voice for the hauntingly lovely “It Only Takes a Moment” as well as a comic/athletic Ray Bolger flair to his dancing in “Dancing.”
New Yorker Kerry Conte as Irene, Cornelius’ love-at-first-sight heartthrob, is a graceful, poised presence with a spot-on soprano that can thrill through the wistfully lyrical “Ribbons Down My Back” and can twinkle through such wonderful silliness as “Elegance.”
Patrick Garr as Barnaby, Cornelius’ 17-year-old co-worker and wingman, and Daisy Wright as Minnie Fay, Irene’s giggly teen shop assistant, are lots of fun as practically perfect comic sidekicks. They back up their friends to provide a romantic foursome. Garr and Wright don’t sing as much as the older two, but they dance – a lot.
Choreographer Brian J. Marcum re-creates and refreshes Gower Champion’s original dance moves, including all the complex patterns and gymnastic leaps of the “Waiters Gallop” as 12 servers in bright red tailcoats pay homage to Dolly’s homecoming. He even spices up a waltz number with tap – unexpected but effective.
Set designer Bruce Brockman creates a sunny 1890s aura with magnificent backgrounds that look like giant vintage postcards framed in French art nouveau oval frames. Combined with dimensional pieces, they give the impression of photo albums coming to life. Costume designer Dixon Reynolds uses saturated pastels rather than primary colors (except for Dolly’s red gown) to give a rainbow of color without being garish. His take on the Edwardian-era look has elegant but simple details to keep from becoming fussy.
Opening night wasn’t perfect, with a sequin noticeably snagging on Dolly’s ball gown, a waiter dropping a plate during the spirited dance (but quickly retrieving it on the next pass) and one character entering just a moment late, leaving Dolly to ad lib a bit. But, hey, that’s what makes live theater live theater. This “Hello, Dolly!” is still a grand old lady not to be missed.
If you go
What: Encore – after 21 years – of Jerry Herman’s beloved, 10-Tony-winning 1964 musical about an irrepressible matchmaker who sets her sights on a wealthy merchant in 1890s New York. Finale for MTW’s 44th summer season.
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
Additional performances: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $28-$64 evenings, $26-$56 matinees; 316-265-3107, www.mtwichita.org