Category: Archive

On The Aisle: Crafty matchmaker

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Well, why not? The ingeniously resourceful woman the world knows as Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi was born as simply Dorothy Gallagher, and Tovah Feldshuh, who’s starring in a shiny, new production of “Hello, Dolly!” at Millburn, New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, through July 23 is convinced she knows when and where.
Many actors, with or without help from their directors and/or writers, find it helpful to create what they call “backstories” for the characters they have been called upon to play. Feldshuh is no exception.
Dolly Gallagher Levi, she believes, first saw the light of day in the West of Ireland, in Connemara, to be exact. She was one of 13 children born to Michael Joseph Gallagher and his wife, Philomena.
In 1847, traditionally accepted as the worst, harshest year of the famine, Gallagher transported his family to America, and once again, to be specific, to Brooklyn, New York.
Dolly’s stage life began with “The Merchant of Yonkers” by playwright Thornton Wilder. It was a failure, but Wilder wrote another version he called “The Matchmaker.’ This time, it was a huge success, earning a long Broadway run with the late Ruth Gordon in the leading role.
Carol Channing, of course, gave an immortal performance as Dolly in 1964, when composer-lyricist Jerry Herman and librettist Michael Stewart turned it into “Hello Dolly!”
The team had written the show for Ethel Merman who, for reasons that have never been made entirely clear, turned it down, although she did do the part for a while late in the Broadway run.
So strong was Channing’s impact on the role, and so enduring her imprint, that no major production has been done in the New York area since the original star finally did her last “Dolly,” in 1996 after endless touring and a couple of returns to Broadway.
Not until Feldshuh’s powerful performance at Paper Mill, that is, in a production that seems to be headed, if things go well, to Broadway. Despite the numerous stars who followed Channing in the role, names ranging from Ginger Rogers to Betty Grable and from Pearl Bailey to Thelma Carpenter, not to mention the great Merman, nobody has ever played Dolly as what she was, an Irish woman, born and bred, until the notoriously strong-willed Feldshuh came along.
Dolly, widowed by the death of her beloved husband, Ephriam Levi, called upon her inherent quick-wittedness, not to mention her extraordinary fearlessness, in order to survive in a tough world, perhaps particularly hard on women living on their own.
In director Mark S. Hoebee’s fast-mooing, well-paced production in Millburn, actress Feldshuh could be said t have reinvented the role, making Dolly more of a credible human being, ridding her of the freakishness which has sometimes adhered to the role, particularly as played by the splendid, but rather cartoonish Channing.
Dolly is, to be sure, a woman of many talents, but playwright Wilder struck pay dirt when he identified her, in his revised version of the play, which he had adapted originally from an obscure German comedy, as a “matchmaker.”
She does, of course, arrange marriages, but her real triumph and her greatest achievement, is to find a wife for the wealthy Yonkers feed-and-grain merchant, Horace Vandergelder. Oddly, all the women she presents to him as prospective brides fail to meet the test.
Dolly Gallagher Levi is now, more than at any time in memory, a real woman, even if she is something of a trickster, whose primary desire is to endure, and, if at all possible, to live a happy domestic life in Yonkers, New York.
Yonkers, it’ll be, of course, because she’s set her cap for the grumpy Horace, nicely played and well sung here by Broadway veteran Walter Charles.
The warmth and humanity Feldshuh brings to her role appears to have spread generally to the rest of the cast, with particular emphasis on Jonathan Rayson and Kate Baldwin, who play, respectively, Cornelius Hackl, the elder of Vandergelder’s two adventure-seeking stockroom clerks, and Irene Molloy, the lonely beauty who runs a Manhattan millinery establishment, but who would clearly prefer to be in charge of a home, as opposed to a hatshop.
Rayson and Baldwin, singer-actors who move unusually well, turn both Cornelius and Irene into credible characters about whom the audience finds it unusually easy to care.
The same comment applies, only slightly less avidly, to the young actors, Brian Sears and Jessica-Snow Wilson, who as Barnaby Tucker and Minnie Fay, function as second bananas for Cornelius and Irene.
Vandergelder’s whimpering ward, Ermengarde, and her suitor, Ambrose Kemper, underwritten roles which almost beg to be rendered too broadly, are nicely handled here by Lauren Marcus and Andrew Gehling, the last-named being somewhat reminiscent of Tommy Tune.
In the Paper Mill production, Anna McNeely scores as Ernestina Money, designed by Dolly to be a failure as a marital prospect for Horace, as do Roger Preston Smith as a judge, and William Solo as Rudolph, maitre d’ at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant on 14th Street, home of the most famous staircase in musical theater history, and the location where the theater’s most celebrated title tune is performed.
That staircase is so familiar, in fact, that the audience at the “Hello, Dolly!” opening performance at Paper Mill applauded it on sight.
It’s not surprising that, despite the fact that the show now seems slightly old-fashioned, it still works, particularly when the central performance is as freshly reconceived as is the one being done by Tovah Feldshuh.
It’s well worth a trip to the charming Paper Mill House in Millburn.
“Marathon 2006” 28th Festival of One-Act Plays. Ensemble Studio Theatre, 49 W. 52 (thru June 25, 2006.
The third and final bill of E.S.T.’s “Marathon 2006” is made up of five plays, all of them of considerable interest, with the strongest and best-conceived being the perhaps awkwardly titled “Dominica: The Fat, Ugly ‘Ho,” by the excellent Stephen Adly Guirgis.
Anne Marie Healy’s “The Night That Roger Went to Visit the Parents of His Old High School Girlfriend,” directed by Andrew McCarthy, is less successful.
“Details,” by Michael Louis Wells, is better by a league. Like “Details,” “Lila on the Wall” suggests a longer play, although it stands on its own more satisfactorily.
The last item on the menu, “The Bus to Buenos Aires,” is a brief opera based on a story, “Las Hermanas de Javier Wiconda.” Paolo is 30 minutes outside Buenos Aires on a trip at the end of which he will learn which of his three sisters has died.
The fragment, written by composer Curtin Moore, with book and lyrics by Tom Mize, has the benefit of a solid central performance by the familiar Sebastian La Cause, who, it turns out, has an extremely pleasant, flexible singing voice.

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