Arlington — There’s plenty to admire about Theatre Arlington’s Hello, Dolly!—engaging performances, fine singing, and genuinely funny comic bits—but also a sense in which the actual review of the show is completely and laughably beside the point. For the many students and fans of the ladies Forster—Persis Ann, who plays Dolly in the show, and her mother Persis, who aced the role three decades ago—seeing the younger of these much-loved ladies onstage is the fun. How many little girls and boys spent their childhood and teen years going to “Miss Persis” for dance? Too many to count—though we did count several of them, beaming with delight, dancing in the ensemble with their one-time teacher.
This mother-daughter duo have nurtured young talent in their own Arlington studio for-ever—and all the years of mutual love showed up in both cast and audience on opening night, not to mention a gigantic church group come to cheer the wonderful Steven D. Morris, lately retired as the 27-year Director of Theatre at Arlington’s Lamar High School. Morris is a teacher who can also do, to paraphrase the old canard: he’s a terrific actor and a tuneful singer, and does a bang-up job with the curmudgeonly character of “half a millionaire” Horace Vandergelder, The Merchant of Yonkers for whom Thornton Wilder’s original source play for the 1964 musical is named (it was later rewritten and renamed The Matchmaker).
Persis Ann Forster is the artistic director for Dance Theatre of Arlington, and has performed principal roles at Casa Mañana, at Lyric Theatre in Oklahoma City, and for the North Shore Theatre in Massachusetts. And if her laid-back Dolly sometimes feels a bit flat—she isn’t at all in the flamboyant mold of Channing or Streisand—she has a pleasant twinkle in the eye, a strong, tuneful voice when it counts—and this dancing lady is both light and de-lightful on her feet.
The two younger couples of the piece go a long way toward selling this Dolly. TCU alums Wyn Delano and Jonathan Hardin are both terrifically funny and engaging as clerks Cornelius and Barnaby, out on a tear in old New York and refusing to go home until they’ve “kissed a girl.” Delano has a big, bold voice absolutely made for musical theatre. He’s a lanky, leggy Ray-Bolgerish guy, and a more-than-decent actor who can be slapstick funny or convincingly romantic. Hardin has a light, clear voice and tons of comic energy. Cornelius is smitten with the owner of a ladies hat shop, Irene (Diane Powell, whose truly yummy soprano—she’s been seen in several Lyric Stage productions—made eyes open wide). Barnaby is much taken with Irene’s sidekick Minnie (Joanna Philips), a bouncy, hilariously wide-eyed miss who just might be one of “those” comic actresses—the ones who aren’t the star (yet), but who keep you watching because everything they do holds the eye. All four can sing, dance and act—so if the show itself is a bit creaky, who cares?
Brandon Mason directs and choreographs; based in New York, he re-introduced himself recently as director/choreographer for Prism Theatrics hugely promoted (and ultimately quite nifty) one-off production of Thoroughly Modern Millie at Will Rogers Auditorium in Fort Worth. His dance numbers here are a mixed blessing: too static in a few numbers, but in others showing a real flair for the strutting, cake-walky dance style of the early 1900s. As always, Jerry Herman’s music is a blend of two eras of show tune Americana—ragtime and early ‘60s pop run through the wringer together—and an annoying number of audience members wanted to show they knew every line and note. (Please, people, no singing in the seats.)
Frankly, though, Hello, Dolly!—however hummable—is a show that’s enjoyable without being great. There’s an eon of time spent on waiters galloping and hi-jinks in the Harmonia Gardens, and a few too many annoying subplots: Dolly gets a local tart (a game, broadly comic Lindsay Hayward) to pretend she’s an heiress and potential wife for Horace; she also plots to marry off Horace’s weepy niece and her suitor (Jessica Peterson and Zachariah Wiedeman do their best with the stuff). It’s a period piece of music theater, all right—but when you get down to it, we’ve had better periods.
The handsome and quite varied costumes are by Stephanie Glenn, and Tony Curtis’ sets work creatively within the limited budget. As is the case with too many smaller companies these days, the music is pre-recorded—but while it’s a pity that financial realities prohibit hiring even a small group of pit musicians, I would rather have this kind of solid musical accompaniment backing up the cast’s fine singing than one tinny piano in the corner.
The yardstick for this kind of revival is, simply: are you glad you went? And in that, Theatre Arlington’s 43rd season opener satisfies. Not a groundbreaking version, but with enough good voices and fresh performances to make you think—yeah, well done. It’s so nice to have you back, Dolly!