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It feels hard to imagine the musical “Hello, Dolly!” without Carol Channing in the title role. After originating the part on Broadway in 1964 and starring in two revivals, she made the part her own.
Yet director Eric Schaeffer’s new version now playing at Ford’s Theatre puts the raspy voiced blonde out of mind almost entirely. OK, maybe once or twice, you might momentarily miss Channing’s googly eyed mugging and over-the-top entrances, but on the whole, this charm-filled production (presented by Ford’s and Signature Theatre) fares splendidly despite the absence of Channing’s star wattage.
As the ever-resourceful Dolly Gallagher Levi, Broadway veteran Nancy Opel delivers presence, an appealing voice and honed comedic skills best demonstrated when she’s happily bulldozing the bad-tempered half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (played by an aptly grouchy Edward Gero) into a marriage he doesn’t yet know he wants. Opel’s Dolly is less loopy than Channing’s syrupy sweet yenta, but she’s definitely entertaining. Plus, her Dolly is a woman you might actually recognize.
Based on Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” “Hello, Dolly!” celebrates the possibility of happiness and new beginnings. It’s very American. Set in 1890s New York City and Yonkers, the musical (book by Michael Stewart; music and lyrics by Jerry Herman) follows the maneuvers of life-loving Dolly as she improves her circumstances and along the way brings a little joy to those around her. Among those benefiting from Dolly’s machinations is widowed milliner Irene Molloy (Tracy Lynn Olivera) who — with Dolly’s assistance — finds love with never-been-kissed shop clerk Cornelius Hackl played by boyish blonde actor Gregory Maheu. Olivera’s gorgeous rendition of “Ribbons Down My Back” is one of the show’s high points.
Similarly, Dolly bolsters love matches involving Irene’s young assistant Minnie Fay and Cornelius’ self-conscious co-worker Barnaby Tucker (Lauren Williams and Zack Colonna), as well as Vandergelder’s hilariously miserable niece Ermengarde (Carolyn Cole) and her artist boyfriend Ambrose (Ben Lurye).
Ford’s Hello Dolly trailer
When Jerry Herman came to Washington to receive a Helen Hayes Tribute in 2005, the famed gay composer shared that his goal has always been to make audiences happy. Herman’s score indeed does just that — filled with hummable, enduring classics like “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Elegance,” “Hello, Dolly!” and the stirring “Before the Parade Passes By,” it has long been an audience favorite. Herman also wrote, among others, the scores for megahits “Mame” and “La Cage Aux Folles.”
Celebrated for streamlining big musicals, Schaeffer (who is gay) has pared down his “Dolly” to a comparably small cast of 16, concentrating more on the show’s story and strong characters rather than spectacle. Adam Koch’s set is a rust-colored train station, the well-used link from Yonkers to the city and back, and though his set is spare, it’s filled with many beautiful things like Wade Laboissonniere’s gorgeous period costumes — plaid suits, bowlers, corseted slim silhouettes, outlandishly large hats — all realized in mostly muted tones; Karma Camp’s inventive, athletic choreography performed by an ensemble of graceful, top-notch dancers; the melodic strains of an on point, eight-man band led by the show’s musical director and keyboardist James Moore; and a spirited cast featuring a lot of local talent.
Earlier this year on a broadcast of “Radio 360,” comedian Sandra Bernhard talked about seeing “Hello, Dolly!” when she was a little girl. Bernhard remembered feeling she should be part of the cast. Then and there, she was ready to get on stage with Carol Channing and the show’s other bigger-than-life characters. Now it’s time for the next generation to get inspired by Ford’s “Hello, Dolly!” and join the parade.