Fort Worth — “It’s no use arguing, I’ve made up your mind,” coos Dolly Gallagher Levi—and who is grumpy half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder to argue with that? She’s a dynamo, a force of nature whose life’s work is to “arrange things” for everyone around her…including the audience. Casa Mañana’s winning revival of Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! sets the room swaying to one irresistible tune after another—and we’re delighted to be under the spell of those waving red feathers again.
This production has the added joy of a Horace for the ages, the warm and wonderful stage magician David Coffee, marking a full half-century of acting on the Casa Mañana stage. It’s long been a given that the success of a Dolly! depends on the talents of the actress in the lead role, and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan (last seen as an impressive Mother Abbess in Casa’s 2014 Sound of Music) certainly brings the goods, most evidently in her blazing versions of the show’s signature songs “Before the Parade Passes By” and “Hello, Dolly.” But for this show to really catch an audience—to make us care what happens—the Horace/Dolly pairing needs to work. It’s what turns this musical, when it’s done right, into something more than a giddy farce.
And that’s where Mr. C comes in.
Red-faced and bellowing from the get-go, Coffee’s Horace bullies everyone in his orbit, from his weeping niece (Lauren Magee) and her timid beau (Bryson Petersen) to his store clerks (earnest and sweet-voiced Ryan Jesse as Cornelius, limber and comic Kenny Francoeur as Barnaby). Yet Coffee is hilariously tender in Horace’s anthem to female drudgery “It Takes a Woman,” dancing romantically with a mop like Fred Astaire, dreaming of the beautiful miss who will “work until infinity” just for him. Without missing a comedy beat, Coffee slowly builds a Horace who feels like a real man (not a top-hatted Monopoly-game cartoon), and who slowly comes to know that Dolly herself, as maddening as he finds her, is the woman he wants. There’s some real—and really funny—chemistry building up between Coffee and Donovan, and it makes all the difference to the show’s emotional arc.
Composer/lyricist Herman’s compulsively singable tunes are the other X-factor, of course. Herman (also famous for the hit musicals Mame and La Cage Aux Folles) has a knack for the kind of toe-tapper audiences warble in the car on the drive home. Dolly has an extraordinary number of his best, from the aforementioned big numbers to ensemble showcases like “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”—and the lovely ballads “Ribbons Down My Back” (sung gorgeously by Emily Ferranti as the pretty widow Irene Molloy) and “It Only Takes a Moment” (a gently beautiful duet for Ferranti and Jesse’s Cornelius).
Donovan isn’t a typically New Yawk-accented Dolly, but she quickly grows on us as she tells her late husband of her decision to “rejoin the human race” and find life and love again. By the time she’s clutching a thank-you nosegay from clerk Barnaby to her heart (and looking after him like a fond mother), we’re rooting big for Dolly’s decision to marry Horace herself and spread his money around, helping “young things” to grow and prosper. You go, girl!
Katie Emerson is a hoot as Minnie Fay, the bouncy, curious assistant in Mrs. Molloy’s Manhattan hat shop, and she keeps up with the spring-loaded Francoeur in some fresh-feeling dance numbers. Dolly’s Director/choreographer Jennifer Werner pays homage to the Gower Champion original dance moves—drawing on the exaggerated mannerisms of turn-of-the-century ballroom style, but keeping things light-footed and comfortable, whether in Dolly’s soft shoe with the Harmonia Gardens staff (and Bob Reed’s whistle-blowing headwaiter Rudy) or the dreamy, swirling waltz “Dancing.”
Werner’s choreography shows off the mind-bending variety of Tammy Spencer’s costumes, painted in all the colors of a Gay (18) Nineties ice-cream parlor—including a few sherbet-hued floaty dresses that look straight-up kidnapped from The Music Man. Bob Lavallee’s flexible set design of twin gazebos (doubling later for the “private rooms” of the restaurant) and descending stairways (one of them appearing magically just when it’s needed) is minimal but delicately decorative, and John Bartenstein’s eye-filling patterns of light and color punctuate every change of scene and mood.
Music director Edward G. Robinson draws beautiful sound from the pit orchestra without ever covering up the singers and lyrics; he needs to schedule some master classes for shows that don’t have a clue how that’s done. Sound designer Eric Norris plays his part well, though for whoever needs to know, we lose some of Dolly’s faster spoken lines to a body mike that might need to be adjusted.
Twenty years after the 1964 Hello, Dolly! opened (two months after JFK’s assassination, in a country that needed some joy) and blew Broadway to happy bits, Jerry Herman was still cheerfully defending his desire to write entertaining shows with songs made to be warbled by the average Joe or Jane. “There’s a rumor,” he grinned, holding onto the 1984 Tony for La Cage Aux Folles, “that the simple hummable show tune is dead on Broadway.”
Not so fast, people. In the seats around me on opening night, here was a 21st-century audience humming along to song after song—and Jerry Herman, who’s still around (hello, Miami?) is smiling from ear to ear, we just know it.
Hello, Dolly. Hello, Horace. It’s so nice to see you back where you belong.