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 July 19, 2013

As Rudolph Says, “Mrs. Levi! She’s back!” – This Time at Goodspeed

Why must two-and-a-half hours pass before Ephraim Levi sends a sign to his widow Dolly that says he’ll permit her remarriage? Now I finally understand. He doesn’t need time to adjust to the situation; he’s been watching Dolly’s adventures along with the rest of us, and he’s not going to prematurely stop what Walter Kerr accurately called “a musical comedy dream.”

As if anyone could stop Daniel Goldstein’s whirlwind production of Hello, Dolly! at the Goodspeed Opera House, anyway. This one speeds by so quickly that it accomplishes one of those rare theatrical miracles: Act One seems ten minutes long and Act Two seems more like five. If this were a film on a continuous loop, here’s betting that the enraptured audience would stay for another show.

The Goodspeed stage is a small one, so when the chorus comes out to sing “Call on Dolly,” there’s no room for one of those new horse-drawn open cars. So Goldstein has Klea Blackhurst enter from the back of the house, gaily dispensing her business cards to the audience. What’s wonderful is that Blackhurst is so natively warm that some audience members play along with her as if they really are potential customers. Or is it that they really are convinced that she could, as one card says, instruct them on the guitar and mandolin? Could be: Blackhurst makes Dolly such an excellent saleswoman that Sam Walton would buy from her -- retail.

She’s certainly selling the show, thanks to her confidence, charm, dazzling smile and, of course, her clarion voice. Irving Berlin once said of a performer surnamed Merman, “When you write lyrics for Ethel, they’d better be good, for if they’re bad, everybody’s going to hear them anyhow.” Lucky for Jerry Herman that he wrote an extraordinary set of lyrics for this show, because Blackhurst makes you hear every syllable. Even when she joins the chorus in “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” her voice stands out – not in that obnoxious way that Julie Andrews sounds when she’s showing off at the end of “Edelweiss.” Blackhurst is simply being a good team player who’s doing her job in singing; can she help it if her voice just happens to be heard among the rest?

By the way, when Dolly opened nearly 50 years ago, many a critic remarked on how extraordinary the chorus sounded. It’s true here, too; from Maddy Apple down to Melodie Wolford, everyone does marvelous justice to Herman’s top-notch music.

The film of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum takes a lot of heat, but there is that strange and hilarious sound that Zero Mostel makes after he’s announced that he’s a soothsayer and that he’s about “to say the sooth.” After Vandergelder tells Dolly that he plans to march in the 14th Street Parade, Blackhurst makes a unique sound of her own, a little softer, a little subtler, but just as funny. What a lagniappe!

And speaking of Vandergelder, give both Goldstein and Tony Sheldon credit for completely reimagining the role. Many who have played the half-a-millionaire have been less than alluring, but Sheldon is handsome, trim, virile and with a healthy head of hair to boot. There’s even a bit of Alfred Drake in him – and what could be a better compliment than that? This may be the first Vandergelder on record who really would be a catch – at least physically speaking.

Of course, as we all know, looks aren’t everything. While other Vandergelders have been paper tigers, Sheldon seems to be a real carnivore. The actor makes the character so gruff and imperious not only to Barnaby and Cornelius but also to the staff at the Harmonia Gardens. The merchant of Yonkers isn’t going to be cowed by any New Yorkers, that’s for sure.

So is this Vandergelder too tough to be redeemed? Here’s where Sheldon and Goldstein offer their masterstroke. Watch Sheldon during “It Only Takes a Moment,” when he sees the love between Irene and Cornelius. His face expresses that he’s now finally discovered what’s been missing from his life. Oh, he’ll try to revert to his old self the next morning when he makes one last-ditch attempt to avoid the woman he knows he really wants. Finally, he admits his true feelings, and we start to believe that Dolly may have been wrong when she confided in Ephraim that she and Vandergelder “won’t have a marriage in the sense that we had one.” The love that seems to flow from both Blackhurst and Sheldon at the show’s final moment suggests that love is lovelier the second time around.

Lord knows how many angels in heaven jealously gnash their teeth every night when they hear Ashley Brown sing. Anyone who plays Irene has a tough task, for “Ribbons Down My Back,” after all, is the first soft and contemplative song in a show that’s been steadily accelerating. Brown makes us stop and hear the poignant lyrics while she caresses the melody as if she’s enjoying a gourmet-level chocolate. As Herman wrote in one of his other superb scores, “So who needs chocolates” when we have Ashley Brown?

She also acts the part to perfection. When she says one of script’s simplest but most potent lines – “The world is full of wonderful things!” she says it in a case-closed manner, that she won’t seriously entertain any dissenting opinion. Brown is also fetching in the way that she look embarrassed and yet pleased when Cornelius praises her in the courtroom.

Spencer Moses does well in the role, looking at first as if he could have posed for Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” His “It Only Takes a Moment” offers many moments of bliss. Even the uproarious way that Frankie Paparone’s court clerk interrupts him can’t stop Moses and that aforementioned extraordinary ensemble from making the ballad a highlight.

Kelli Barclay’s choreography does borrow liberally from Gower Champion’s original, but her corps is precision-perfect. There’s that famous story about the original production of Lady in the Dark – that after Danny Kaye did “Tschaikowsky” the staff worried that Gertrude Lawrence wouldn’t be able to top him with “The Saga of Jenny.” But she did. Here, the same danger lurks after Barclay has her magnificent waiters do their gallop. (The words I think I’d use is all-star athletic.) Now – can Blackhurst and the waiters top it with that title song?

Yes. Part of the success was the genuine way that Blackhurst handles it. She proudly wants Manny to know that she remembers his name because she feels that he’s a person worth remembering. Special commendation, too, to another waiter, for when Dolly asks, “Lose some weight, Stanley?” his assertive nod makes clear that he’s been working on it and that he’s very glad that someone has finally noticed.

Dolly would seem to be a show that wouldn’t reduce well on the modest Goodspeed stage, but set designer Adrian W. Jones solves that potential problem with ease. Enhancing his wondrous two-level unit set are a few long rectangular boxes. They serve at one moment as display cases at Vandergelder’s shop and the next as benches on which everyone sits en route to New York – before enjoying plenty of other transmogrifications. Best of all, Jones hangs a drop behind Irene’s hat shop that shows so many ribbons in a rainbow of colors that you’d swear it’s the last Sunday in June on Fifth Avenue. This is an especially nice detail, because Michael Stewart’s dialogue establishes that Irene and her assistant Minnie know that this summer ribbons are in. Hmmm, given Irene’s good business sense, perhaps she would be right for Vandergelder after all.

No. Everyone winds up with the right person down to Jeremy Morse’s Barnaby and Catherine Blades’ Minnie – each of whom is wonderfully grounded and not there just to be silly.

In the end, Cornelius is right: there’s a world outside of Yonkers – and it’s not simply New York City. There’s East Haddam, Connecticut, especially now through September 8. Jerry Herman has been talking recently about who should play Dolly on Broadway. May I knock on his head and say “Hello, Jerry: let’s see Blackhurst and everyone else at the Broadhurst -- and send that musical that’s currently booked in there to be banished far away from us.”

         — Peter Filichia

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