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The Definition of "It" 

As I was swept along in a boisterous crowd, after the final curtain call of Hello, Dolly, someone noticed the lovely Deleen Davidson who had played the coquettish widow Irene Molloy. Davidson, still in costume, was trying to make her way to the lobby. In reply to cheers and congratulations, she said, "Oh, It's such a happy show!"

A happy show, it is -- and a perennial favorite! It ran for 3,000 or so performances on Broadway in its first outing in 1964. It was successful in an African-American version in 1974 and in several subsequent revivals and tours. The lead role has attracted a throng of first-rate stars: Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman and, of course, Carol Channing.

A happy show, yes, and a wildly popular one. But why? That's harder to say. Hello, Dolly is not satirical. It's not witty. The characters are neither particularly interesting nor particularly funny. The plot is threadbare, predictable and noteworthy neither for logic nor comic invention. In a way, Hello, Dolly is like a woman who's got a great deal of sex appeal -- but whose features, taken one by one, are not in themselves remarkable. She's got "it," but what is it?

The central character, Dolly Gallagher Levi, is a well-dressed "meddler" (her own words) who has set her cap for an obnoxious Scrooge of a Hay and Seed Merchant from Yonkers. Roping in this old buzzard and his half million is her only goal in life (though she does, admittedly, manage to sort out all the romantic entanglements of the minor characters as well along the way). As her deceased husband might have said, "So what's to like?" We certainly don't get any clues from her signature tune, for it merely celebrates her return to a restaurant she used to frequent. And this bit of information concerning her former dining habits has no meaning whatsoever in the story. Why do the waiters and the management get hysterical by the thought of her arrival (which is announced with slightly less fanfare than the second coming)? Well, because they do, that's why! Nonetheless, the song -- if extraneous -- is also irresistible. Maybe the phrase "Hello, Dolly" -- like voodoo charms, advertising jingles and political slogans -- fires a synapse in the cerebellum that reduces us to a state of helpless adoration. At any rate, the audience -- like the wait staff -- loves Dolly! They love her to death. She is a sort of theatrical Eva Peron, and the auditorium resounds with the cheers of her enraptured peons.

Co-directors Derek Franklin and Sonny Borey certainly knew what they were doing when they handed this plum role to Anne Casey. She's got a kind of free-floating charm and chutzpah that convinces -- quite apart from whatever is supposed to be going on onstage. She is also a "belter," as they say. And listening to her wind up that seductive contralto in the intro of a big song was almost as pleasurable as the hold-onto-your-hats-folks climax that followed. Playing opposite her as Horace Vandergelder, Bob Edes was part Elmer Fudd, part W. C. Fields and a total delight. Uncompromisingly splenetic, Vandergelder's idea of a female companionship is summed up in his ode to wifely duties:

"She'll be a joy and a treasure for practically speaking/ Who can you turn to when the plumbing is leaking."

Given his coarseness and Dolly's mercenary motives, it's surprising the result is "happiness," either for them or the audience. But maybe the arrant nonsense of it all is a kind of permission -- a vacation from even the most minimal restraints of verisimilitude. As when a minor character, in order to show us she is low class, shouts, "Tell the band to play something refined, I want to dance the hootchie kootchie!"

The subplots involve true love. Jimmy Murphy and Deleen Davidson were captivating as a shy, impoverished head clerk and his first-ever damsel, while Jauné Buisson and Brian Bennett gave us an agreeable pair of enamored sidekicks.

Visually, the production was as high tone as it was exuberant, and featured not only a shapely horse (legs courtesy of Christina Tichenor and Sasha Masakowski), but a working steam engine and a full-scale parade float. In fact, the parade sequence with its Brunnhilde's and brewmeisters and signs and insignias was more munificent than the triumphal march in many a local Aida.

The chorus (26 strong) was in tip top-form. Among many treats from choreographers Karen Hebert and Anita Landry, the inventive moves of the waiters at Harmonies Garden Restaurant were especially entertaining.

Artistic director Sonny Borey made his mark with big, splashy, picture-perfect recreations of Broadway hits. Hello, Dolly shows he hasn't lost his touch.

click to enlarge Bob Edes as Horace Vandergelder and Anne Casey - as Dolly Gallagher Levi proved once again the - curious popularity of Hello, Dolly, recently - at Le Petit. - JOHN BARROIS
  • John Barrois
  • Bob Edes as Horace Vandergelder and Anne Casey as Dolly Gallagher Levi proved once again the curious popularity of Hello, Dolly, recently at Le Petit.
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