Hello Dolly!

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Published: 31st May, 2017

Having not seen a live production of this show ever, and with only a distant memory of the film version to draw on, I approached this with many questions. With Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman (based on a book by Michael Stewart), and having first been seen on Broadway in 1964, does the work – one of the most enduring musicals of its kind – carry a message today, or are we in for a romp in pure nostalgia?

Based on a real person, Dolly Levi (Marina Prior) is a marriage broker engaged by wealthy businessman Horace Vandergelder (Grant Piro). Her fast-talking sassiness is bravado on top of the desire to snag Vandergelder for herself. The string of less than suitable introductions she organises in the meantime to soften him up to her overtures is ripe with comical potential, and in this production it is fully realised.

Piro’s unwavering focus in the role is of admirable strength, particularly given that for almost the entire show, Vandergelder is a miserable curmudgeon – only at the very end do we see his attitude transformed by Dolly. The thunderous appreciation at curtain calls was certainly evidence that the opening night audience grasped the quality of his work.

As the dress shop owner/seamstress Irene Molloy, Verity Hunt Ballard was a delight, and though the role only allowed for one solo number and some ensemble work, her gorgeous singing was utterly memorable. Glenn Hill also drew great audience appreciation, peaking especially in his beautiful singing of It Only Takes a Moment. Exemplary performances in the other roles were also delivered by Jack Van Staveren, Baylie Carson, Nigel Huckle, Imogen Moore, Mike Snell, Alana Tranter and Brenton Wilson.

As Dolly Levi, Marina Prior showed extraordinary stamina in this extremely demanding role, and the huge preparation she must have put in showed. As a soprano, this role is not in her most natural range – the Broadway belt is generally closer to the contralto’s territory, but Prior dealt with the challenges with great aplomb and verve. The other challenge is that the show takes a form as though the song, dance and ensemble music scenes are interspersed with scenes reminiscent of Vaudeville comedy, necessitating a rapid shift to another performance mode. The fast talking, wise cracking New York “dame” has to be on tap immediately, and once again, Prior’s preparation was in great evidence. There were certainly shades of Streisand ‘s comic timing evident.

Visually the piece is gorgeous – particularly Isaac Lummis’ costumes provided both the realism and the glamour. Shaun Gurton’s set designs were simple, and remarkably effective. The Orchestra was set on stage in the space between two curving staircases, and it was lovely to see the orchestra and cast interacting. Vanessa Scammell’s music direction was spot on throughout, and the achievement of the musicians is particularly notable given that the sound of this score was conceived at a time when a Broadway orchestra was typically three times the size we see today. That the effect was still complete and full is a tribute to the arranger and the musicians in this case. Chorus work by the ensemble was tight, clear and energized – again, a delight. Sound was balanced and clear form start to finish.

Kirsten King’s choreography gave both visual spectacle and comic delight throughout – the Waiters’ Gallop scene in the restaurant was a particular triumph. Gary Young’s direction kept the interest up throughout – the pace never flagged, and the energy of the production was completely taken on by the audience.

This is one of the very last of what is recognized as the Golden Era of the Broadway Musical – before a less naïve understanding of politics brought in change and realism in the storytelling of the musical. It was also one of the final times that a show tune topped the pop charts, as Armstrong’s Hello Dolly did, displacing the Beatles at the time.

The form described above allows the musical numbers to be fantasy responses to frequently improbable situations set up by the comedy scenes. Oddly enough, this allows the audience to relax and just enjoy the show, knowing that we are not expected to work too hard at following plot complexities. This was the period when the artform was known as Musical Comedy – stories didn’t have to fully make sense, because there was more importance attached to the form itself. In his essay Entertainment and Utopia, Richard Dyer points out that much of what appears in the musical as froth and bubble actually contains some powerful representations. These are the elements of wish fulfillment that a young America needed to believe about itself.

In Hello Dolly! we see all of these elements – here are the beautiful women, presented at their most glamorous in echoes of Ziegfeld’s Follies, the youth and vigour in the dance sequences, the truth and transparency in the embedded love story of the hometown girl and boy, the sense of community in the chorus numbers and above all, the depiction of abundance in this land of plenty. Dolly Levy’s tireless intensity is the entrepreneurial spirit – she even has various business cards printed for even the most unlikely opportunities – and is the agent for everyone getting to share in the abundance, however improbably it is achieved. Wish fulfillment indeed, and in these times, fuel for reflection.

The moral of the story – “money is like manure – it’s no use unless you spread it around” is the take-home message. Jeannie Pratt and her backers through the Production Company have tirelessly shared a rich blend of the evergreen and the less familiar shows with Melbourne audiences since 1999. This has deeply enriched the life of musical theatre in Melbourne, and Melbourne is enormously grateful.