Starring Sharon Murray Harrah, Dan Bullington, Ryan Metzger, Tyler Bliss, Colette Barney, Claire Longest and Mary Elizabeth Buckner. Directed by Mark Martino. Orchestra conducted by Craig Swatt. Presented by Music Theatre Louisville at the Iroquois Amphitheatre. Continues June 20-24. For tickets, call 589-4060.
“Hello, Dolly!” is a lighthearted romantic comedy, based on Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker,” set in 1890s New York. This was before women could vote, and men like Yonkers’ “half a millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (Dan Bullington) viewed wives as unpaid housekeepers. Women needed men to take care of them in those days. Widow Dolly Levi (Sharon Murray Harrah) is a shrewd yentl (matchmaker) who also teaches hapless clerks how to dance and does whatever it takes to live hand-to-mouth. Feedstore owner Vandergelder has paid Dolly to make a match for him. He needs someone who will cheerfully clean out the drain. A light bulb goes off in her head, and she decides he’s her perfect match instead. She must then find a suitable match for another widow, Irene Molloy (Colette Barney), who has her eye on Vandergelder. Farcical situations ensue.
Something wasn’t quite right during the first act on opening night. The sets and costumes were dreary, all drab greens and browns. The sound was terrible, and mics kept malfunctioning. Vandergelder’s shop clerks, Barnaby and Cornelius, sounded like squeaky adolescents from an old Firesign Theatre parody, “Georgie Tirebiter.” It was simply a dead performance. The audience just wasn’t “with” the cast, and the cast was floundering. Dismayed, I feared I’d have to write a negative review.
But when Harrah took control of the sinking ship during the rousing number “Before the Parade Passes By,” suddenly there was magic. Just as Dolly decides to live life to the fullest instead of wasting away in mourning for her dead husband, Friday’s performance opened up and never looked back. Harrah grabbed the audience by the balls and didn’t let go.
The second act was beyond incredible. Even the dreary sets sprang to life. The waiters moved fluidly in the Harmonia Gardens “Waiters’ Galop” scene, with their teetering towers of plates and delicacies. One waiter back-flipped over a chair. When Harrah gracefully descended the Garden stairs in the show-stopping titular number, every eye in the ensemble twinkled. They knew they were “on,” and we knew it too. Even the bats that flew around the lights seemed to be in awe of the performance.
Harrah is simply splendid. She’s appeared in numerous shows and cabaret acts in New York and around the world, and appeared on Broadway with Ben Vereen and Stubby Kaye in Hal Prince’s “Grind.” Reminiscent of Ethel Merman and Sophie Tucker, she’s nevertheless unique and brings an earthy, irresistible sexiness to her role.
Colette Barney is fine as the Widow Molloy, whose mellifluous voice was last heard in MTL’s “Brigadoon.” Claire Longest is winning as Minnie, Mrs. Molloy’s naïve assistant. Tyler Bliss’ voice filled the amphitheater as the feckless Barnaby. Ryan Metzger made the audience cheer on the cardboard-ish chief clerk Cornelius as he woos the Widow Molloy. Dan Bullington is suitably gruff as the misanthropic Vandergelder.
If you can overlook the show’s blatant sexism, and just hang on until the jaw-dropping 14th Street parade, you’re in for a rare treat under the stars.