When the musical “Hello, Dolly!” premiered in 1964, it became a classic right out of the gate. Written by Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart, the original production won 10 Tony Awards and made a star out of Carol Channing, who played busybody matchmaker Dolly Levi. Its popularity even extended to Hollywood and mainstream radio: It was adapted into a successful, Oscar-winning film starring Barbra Streisand in 1969, and a version of its title song performed by Louis Armstrong overtook the Fab Four on the Billboard charts at the height of Beatlemania.
It’s a Broadway institution, and dozens of legendary actresses have taken a crack at Dolly in various revivals: Ginger Rogers, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, Eve Arden, Betty Grable. And now Sally Struthers, the Emmy Award-winning actress of “All in the Family” fame, has taken on the role, starring in a touring production of “Hello, Dolly!” that is making a stop in Spokane as part of INB’s Best of Broadway series.
For an old chestnut like “Hello, Dolly!” to work, it has to move with a boundless energy, and this version has enough of that to spare. Under the direction of Jeffrey B. Moss, the show gives the well-known song and dance numbers, the physical comedy bits and the plot’s romantic center the care and attention they deserve. No, the story doesn’t go anywhere unexpected, but it can be a lot of fun when it’s served by a talented and versatile cast.
The show begins in New York in 1897, as the widowed Dolly, whose profession is meddling in everyone’s business, travels to Yonkers to meet feed store proprietor and famed “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (Tony Triano). He’s set to marry the much younger hat shop owner Irene Molloy (Lauren Blackman), but Dolly has a hidden agenda: She’s going to set up Irene with Horace’s chief shop clerk, the meek Cornelius Hackl (Matt Wolfe), and worm her way into the role of the new Mrs. Vandergelder.
Because we know exactly where the plot’s headed before the curtain even opens, it’s best to focus instead on the performers. The highlight of the production is an extended setpiece inside the upscale Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, as the staff of waiters and chefs toss bottles, leap over tables and balance towering, unwieldy stacks of dirty dishes. It’s a great feat of amazing physicality and comedic dexterity, and it’s all before Dolly, in the show’s most iconic moment, descends the staircase to the strains of the title tune.
The appeal of “Hello, Dolly!” is in its spirit and showmanship, and it’s a true performers’ show. Struthers in particular seems to be having a ball camping it up as the shrewd, crafty Dolly Levi, channeling the lovable daffiness of Carol Channing without ever copying any of that actress’s famous affectations. She brings a winking awareness to her best lines, often playing directly to the audience by encouraging more applause, announcing encores and, at one point, offering a “God bless you” to an audience member who sneezed.
If nothing else, the production serves mostly as a showcase for Struthers, who gets to show her versatility with tearful admissions of love and moments of unhinged slapstick: In one memorable scene, Dolly is left alone at a table and gleefully stuffs her mouth with food, which offers Struthers a good five minutes of giddy improvisation. She hits just the right note with her dizzy portrayal, proving that while “Hello, Dolly!” may be a classic, it’s best to forgo any kind of hushed reverence and simply revel in its unbridled goofiness.
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