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November 13, 2015

From Reams with Love: HELLO, DOLLY!

Well, my heart is about to burst. My head is about to pop. I’m on my way to The Wick Theatre in Boca Raton, Florida. There I’ll see Lee Roy Reams take his next adventure with HELLO, DOLLY!

First, he was Cornelius Hackl in the initial Carol Channing revival. For the second, he was entrusted with directing and choreographing.

Now, however, Reams will actually be playing Dolly Levi.

The gender-switch is not unprecedented. In 1984, legendary British female impersonator Danny La Rue played Dolly at The Prince of Wales Theatre. A DVD of a 1995 production that La Rue did in the provinces exists, so I watched it before heading to Florida.

I was more appalled than impressed – and not just because La Rue dropped the verse of “So Long, Dearie” and eliminated “Motherhood.” I won’t complain about his Cyril Ritchard-ish voice, either, but I do take great issue with what he chose to say with it.

During “Dancing,” when Cornelius started waltzing, La Rue blurted out “Fred Astaire has nothing on you!” Dolly couldn’t possibly have said that, for Astaire was born right around the time that the show takes place.

But La Rue delivered a far more horrifying ad-lib in the same number after Barnaby had fallen on the floor: “Your ass took a beating there.” No, Dolly Gallagher Levi, born and bred in the late 19th century, would not use that three-letter word.

Granted, the British tradition of freewheeling pantos and drag do allow for more leeway and less literal interpretations. But we must remember that when La Rue opened the show in London, he received the worst reviews of his career. He simply wasn’t playing enough of the character and often wasn’t even trying.

Will Reams play Dolly as high-camp? It only takes a moment for me to doubt it, as soon as I remember his Duane, Margo Channing’s hairdresser in APPLAUSE. I still consider it one of the most significant performances of the last half-century because Reams played Duane as a human being who matter-of-factly happened to be gay. He – in conjunction with director Ron Field – didn’t play him in what had always been the standard fashion: the over-the-top nellie who hoped to make the audience laugh hard enough to suspend its hatred of homosexuals for an hour or two. No – Reams made Duane the man he was meant to be, and I’ll bet that he plays Dolly for the woman she’s meant to be.

Out comes the trolley car with its three passengers, all of whose faces are obscured by newspapers. The one to the extreme left has very big hands which jerk the newspaper down, allowing us to see “Dolly Levi!” Reams looks not unlike Sophie Tucker, and although Reams is famous for his jet-black hair, his wig shows us that orange is the new black. He could literally or metaphorically give a wink when Dolly sings the first six words of her first lyric -- “I have always been a woman” – but Reams doesn’t pander. Like La Rue, Reams will unapologetically use his own voice, which is still a strong one. That’s why he can go high on the final “hand” of the song in a way that few Dollys have.

Reams convinces that he’ll give a real and honest performance when Dolly first looks to heaven to address her now-deceased husband Ephraim. His voice cracks a little when he admits “I’m tired” in such a way to convey the world-weariness of a woman who’s had a hardscrabble existence in a man’s world. Best of all, for the entire night, Reams won’t deliver a line the way Channing did, which is remarkable considering how many times he saw he doing it.

Most of all, he has heart. When Dolly starts to instruct Cornelius and Barnaby to dance, Reams’ tender and patient tone suggests he’d be a good teacher. Sure, there’s broad comedy in the script. “Let me cut your wings” … “Eat. Out.” … business cards that are much too specific to be believable: “Mrs. Dolly Levi: 33-year-old chief clerks taught how to dance.” There’s a good deal of fun, too, in Dolly’s many white lies (to which Reams gives quite a bit of color).

But there’s deep emotion here, too. Although Dolly convinces us that she loved Ephraim dearly and respects his memory, what good is sitting alone in your room? In an era when any wife who survived her husband was expected to wear black every day and spend her time saying what a saint the guy was, here’s a widow who unapologetically dares to consider marrying again while she fully admits that she’s not wildly in love with Horace Vandergelder, the man she’s chosen.

She could seem crass, but Reams’ Dolly displays a more important quality, one that even she may not fully realize: she can make Horace improve and rejoin the human race along with her. So when Reams tells Ephraim “I want you to give me away” in a plaintive hushed and wonderfully sincere tone, we want it, too.

Instead of dropping material a la La Rue, Reams instead gives the lagniappe of “Love, Look in My Window.” It’s one of two songs that Herman had written early on for would-be star Merman but dropped when she declined the project. Not until The Merm became the last of the original production’s Dollys did the public hear the songs. It’s a strong entrée to “Before the Parade Passes By” which Reams sings with muster.

Before that comes Reams’ most tender moment. At the end of “Dancing,” Dolly gives a fond look of happiness to the young lovers who gambol off. We see her remember her days of First Love and how she can still get pleasure from the recollection of the wonderful experiences and feelings that she had all those years ago.

In “So Long, Dearie,” Reams reiterates that he’s of the generation that knows how to handle a hat in a razz-ma-tazz number. However, he is hampered here and at other times by costumes that seem ill-fitting and not very attractive. The one that seems the most wrong, sad to say, is the variation on the famous red dress in the even-more famous title tune. Frankly, it looks like the outfit that Roger De Bris wore when Bialystock and Bloom first met him. (Maybe it was left over from the time that Reams played Roger.)

Oh, and that title number? A TV series of yore made a big deal of a watering hole “where everybody knows your name.” Well, can it begin to compare to a restaurant where they sing and dance your praises after you dispense your “Hellos”? Reams flirts with Manny and Danny, which could be dangerous in this red-state environment. No, the all-night-long cheers show that the theatergoers accept him fully and want to take the ride. During “Hello, Dolly!” some overtly clap in unison and one audience member even lifts his arms high and sways them along with the waiters. What is this, THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW?

Hardly, as DOLLY’S superior book, music, lyrics and staging always prove. But this attendee is INVOLVED. So’s the one who at Reams’ curtain call, cries “Bravo!” Wouldn’t “Brava!” be an even better compliment? Reams deserves it just for the subtle way he follows up his second “You go your way and I’ll go mine.” As every DOLLY fan knows, the second wide gesture is identical to the first, but Reams makes it all the more convincing by bringing his hand to his other arm to adjust a button on his long white glove. Horace couldn’t possibly call her on the gesture when she “only” meant to button her glove.

The other principals shine. Lewis J. Stadlen showed us 45 years ago as Groucho in MINNIE’S BOYS that he knows how to punch a musical comedy line with the perfect timing. Now, as Vandergelder, he certainly still does, with that battery-acid tinged voice battling the nemesis he’ll come to love.

In his first big monologue, Stadlen must deal with the pitfall-laden line “My wife died, which was foolish of her.” Many a Vandergelder has seemed callous in saying it, but Stadlen knows how to say it so matter-of-factly that an audience hasn’t enough time to catch its worst implications. What’s also fun is that when Stadlen reaches the Harmonia Gardens in his formal top hat and mustache, he rather resembles the man on Monopoly’s Community Chest and Chance cards.

Susan Powell’s Irene isn’t merely ready to dance; she’s hot to trot.
James Clow’s Cornelius is earnest, troubled and attractive instead of just being broad and silly as so many have been.

So Lee Roy Reams and company, as well as Jerry Herman, Michael Stewart and (need we add?) Thornton Wilder are indeed reminding us that, as Irene Molloy says, the world is full of beautiful things.

         — Peter Filichia



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