By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Few shows are so overdone as this one. Critics dread reviewing it again and again. Ardent theatergoers greet its title on a new season brochure with groans of disappointment. Thinking Hello, Dolly! maybe? How about Tuesdays With Morrie?
Either or both. They're always playing somewhere, these two. And like theatrical crabgrass, here they come again. Dolly just opened at Lyric Stage in Irving. Morrie's in the studio space at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. But here's the deal: One's pretty darned good, delivering a warm, funny, life-affirming lesson in the value of putting love and compassion before money and ambition. The other is a stifling bore full of cheap sentiment and shallow cracker-barrel homilies passing for genuine wisdom. The surprise is which is which.
Let's start with the loud lady from Yonkers. Dolly Gallagher Levi began her dogged pursuit of "famous half-a-millionaire" Horace Vandergelder in Thornton Wilder's 1938 comedy The Merchant of Yonkers, based in part on a 19th-century Austrian play, later re-written and re-titled The Matchmaker. She earned the Hello, a comma, the exclamation mark and nine Tony Awards for the 1964 Broadway musical version featuring a book by Michael Stewart, and hit-spawning music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Dolly would never go away again thanks to the Oscar-winning 1969 film and several subsequent Broadway revivals.
With the same corny appeal of Guys and Dolls and The Sound of Music, ditzy Dolly has become a dependable warhorse of a show. It's a perennial favorite of high schools, where teenagers in shiny orthodonture masquerade as middle-aged Dollys and Horaces. Smaller regional or community theaters skimp on sets and orchestra so they can pay some brassy, past-her-prime pro (paging Ruta Lee!) to don a bustle and waddle around in the lead.
It's rare to see a Dolly done full out anymore, with age-appropriate actors in all the roles and a bunch of good musicians in the pit. But Lyric, the little company in Irving devoted to reviving rarely done American musicals, has gone for it. This show hardly fits that "rarely done" requirement, but good golly, this Dolly is so good, it feels freshly spiffed up. There's life in the old girl yet.
Lyric puts special emphasis on proper singing—too many other theaters doing musicals seem to suffer from chronic tin ear syndrome—so the cast of Dolly is packed with major vocal vavoom. In the title role, the formidable Julie Johnson pitches her singing nicely between the big belting of Ethel Merman and the precisely enunciated cooing of Angela Lansbury. (Johnson plays her more Southern belle than New York yenta, so it helps to remember that Dolly's maiden name is Gallagher.) As Dolly's love interest, Bradley Campbell is a hefty Horace with a clear, muscular baritone, perfect complements to Johnson's roundish tones and plump silhouette.
Director Cheryl Denson, who also staged Lyric's phenomenal Carousel last fall, has cast great singers who happen to be capable actors with real comic chops. That helps to make this truly a musical comedy. Johnson and Campbell twinkle with mischief in the romantic tug-of-war scenes between obstinate merchant Horace and widowed marriage broker Dolly. Their dinner date at the Harmonia Gardens, with Dolly leading Horace through tricky verbal switchbacks on the way to a proposal, is feisty and funny.
The story sets up a series of farcical coincidences involving Dolly, who's pretending to find a wife for Horace, and Horace's two bachelor clerks, Cornelius (played by Lyric founder and producer Steven Jones) and Barnaby (Michael Mandrikian). On a day off from work in 1890s Manhattan, the naïve boys stumble into the hat shop owned by Irene Malloy (Catherine Carpenter Cox), a young widow unhappily headed toward marriage to Horace. At first sight, Irene and her assistant Minnie (Arianna Movassagh) fall for Cornelius and Barnaby and set out for a day of sightseeing, then dinner and dancing at the same elegant restaurant where Dolly schemes to nab Horace for herself.
Along the way, money-grubbing Horace learns to be a little more generous with his dollars and his affections, and his perpetually poor and single clerks take their chances on love and end up the better for it. In trying to find happiness the second time around, the matchmaker has to let go of her lingering loyalty to dead husband Ephraim so she can feel free to pursue her new man. The familiar title number, signaling her entrance down the staircase into the restaurant, also serves to reintroduce Dolly Levi to Horace as a single woman, not merely as his meddlesome marriage consultant.
Lyric's Dolly builds momentum from first song to last, moving in a dizzy, dreamlike spin. Jerry Herman's lyrics for the first-act song "Dancing" say it perfectly: Make the music weave a spell/Whirl away your worry/Things look almost twice as well/When you're slightly blurry. When pretty chorus girls twirl on in their feathered picture hats and frilly pastel frocks (by costumer Billie Boston), the stage blurs into a parade of color and motion. And not letting that parade pass her by for one second, Johnson's Dolly Levi marches to the edge of the stage, tilts up her chin and lets loose with the booming anthems.