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A tale of two Dollys


LeavelBlackhurst

Beth Leavel, left, and Klea Blackhurst portray America’s favorite matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi in two very different productions of Hello, Dolly!

What kind of fool goes to two different productions of the same show in two weeks? A musical theater fool.

I recently saw two productions of Hello, Dolly! The first was at the Cape Cod Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, starring Tony-award winning actress Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone). The second was in East Haddam, Connecticut at the Goodspeed Opera House, featuring Klea Blackhurst in the title role. Two very different productions, but great fun for this Dolly fan.

Dolly background

Hello, Dolly! is a musical comedy based on Thorton Wilder’s farce The Matchmaker. Set in the late 1890’s at the turn of the century, it tells the story of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a middle-aged widow and matchmaker, who sets out to make one last match — for herself, by nabbing Horace Vandergelder, the famous penny-pinching “Half-A-Millionaire” of Yonkers, NY. Dolly was written by Michael Stewart with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. The show first opened on Broadway in 1964 and was a long-running smash. It won 10 Tony awards, including Best Leading Actress by Carol Channing. In 1969, it was made into a film starring Barbra Streisand.

The show has since been produced across the world by professional and amateur theater companies. Still popular with audiences today, it’s also the subject of an upcoming book, Call on Dolly: Celebrating 50 Years of Hello, Dolly! by entertainer Richard Skipper, my dear friend and fellow Dolly enthusiast.

Hello, Dolly! was my gateway drug into musical theater and it was intoxicating. I was hooked and wanted more. Being a mere child, I missed Dolly when it first appeared on Broadway in 1964. But thanks to my mother’s wonderful record collection I got to listen over and over to Carol Channing, Charles Nelson Reilly (Cornelius), and Eileen Brennan (Irene Malloy) on the original Broadway cast recording. My favorite song was “So Long Dearie” which I used to sing to the family dog. 

Carol Channing at the Tribeca Film Festival tells everyone to "smile for Patty."

Carol Channing at the Tribeca Film Festival tells everyone to “smile for Patty.” —Patricia Gay photo

In 1975, I had the pleasure to see Pearl Bailey as Dolly on Broadway in an all-Black production (Her 1967 tour featured Clifton Davis and a young Morgan Freeman as two of the dancing waiters).

Finally, in 1978 I got to see my childhood idol Carol Channing perform Hello, Dolly! in Boston, part of a national tour featuring Eddie Bracken as Horace Vandergelder. I wanted to sing every song along with the cast, but had to settle for quietly mouthing all the tunes.

More recently, as a journalist, I’ve had the great opportunity to interview Carol Channing. I met her and her sweet late husband Harry at a screening of the documentary, Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, at the Tribeca Film Festival. As I took photos for BroadwayWorld.com, I had to laugh when she pointed at me and told everyone to “smile for Patty.” Carol was Carol and she was delightful.

  Cape Cod Playhouse

Having seen my share of Dollys over the years, I had high expectations for the New England productions. I’m happy to say that both Beth Leavel in the Cape Cod Playhouse production and Klea Blackhurst at Goodspeed, were wonderful! Very different interpretations though.

Jennifer Cody

Jennifer Cody

Beth played Dolly as a smart lady, who quietly manipulates the people around her to achieve results. Her singing was solid and sweet and she graced the character with charm and warmth. The cast also featured Jennifer Cody (Sutton Foster’s sister-in-law) as Minnie Fay and she didn’t disappoint. I previously saw Cody on Broadway in Urinetown: The Musical, which also starred her husband Hunter Foster. So I knew she had a big personality and was a great dancer. Her comedic timing as Minnie Fay was perfect and the choreographer gave her some great dance numbers. She got a huge ovation at the curtain call, as did the six male dancers who performed an energetic and fun Waiters Gallop.

On the down side, the actors playing Barnaby and Cornelius brought little to the table, and managed to make the “Elegance” number dull. The actress playing Irene Malloy had to work hard to hit her notes on “Ribbons Down My Back” and it showed. Pacing of the show was a bit too fast so some of the good jokes were lost. But the worst offense was the shrill one-note performance by James Brennan as Horace Vandergelder. All he did was bark. I wanted to jump on stage and beg Dolly not to settle for this dog! Overall, I give Beth Leavel an A, and a score of B-/C+ for the entire production.

Goodspeed

Word of mouth reviews about the Goodspeed Dolly were so good that the show was extended through Sept. 14. This is a first rate production where attention was paid to details. Klea Blackhurst, best known for her Ethel Merman tribute — Everything the Traffic Will Allow — brought a little Merman to her Dolly.

High jumping waiters in the Goodspeed production.

High jumping waiters in the Goodspeed production.

She was bolder and sassier than Beth Leavel. Where Leavel had to keep up with the fast pace, Blackhurst took her sweet time, milking every joke for all it was worth.

She played to the hilt the courtroom scene where the cast was anxiously waiting for her to finish her dinner at the Harmonia Gardens and defend them. Without speaking a single word, she had the audience roaring for several minutes as she crammed dumpling after dumpling into her mouth and then went to work on an ear of corn. Taking it painstakingly slow, she munched row after row, occasionally gazing up to the balcony to admonish a man, with just a glance, for looking down into her cleavage. The final touch was when she used the back of a spoon as a mirror to put on a fresh coat of lipstick. When she finally stepped into court, she simply said, “The defense rests,” bringing huge applause from the audience. Game, set and match Ms. Blackhurst. You nailed it! (That solo Dolly food scene was completely cut from the Cape Cod production).

This production also boasts the presence of Ashley Brown as Irene Malloy. Brown originated the title role in Mary Poppins on Broadway and she delivered! Beautiful to look at, with a voice to match! Brown added a few extra trills and flourishes to “Ribbons Down My Back,” which made the number sparkle. At the curtain call, she got a huge ovation. Unfortunately, she was not helped by the actor playing Cornelius, her love interest. As in the Cape production, he seemed to just be going through the motions. There was no chemistry. The actress playing Minnie Fay was cute but wasn’t in the same league as Jennifer Cody. The dancers in the Waiters Gallop, however, were AMAZING! The choreography was very complex and included juggling, balancing skewers, back flips, and clanging silver plates and lids. WOW!

Klea Blackhurst, the expressive Tony Sheldon, and the beautiful Ashley Brown.

Klea Blackhurst, the expressive Tony Sheldon, and the beautiful Ashley Brown.

The huge surprise for me in this production though was Tony Sheldon as Horace Vandergelder. Finally, an actor who GETS it! Dolly is supposed to be a comedy and if Horace only yells and screams he ain’t funny. Sheldon was a breath of fresh air. A Tony nominee for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, he played Horace as a cheap miser who was just as foolish as the next guy. His facial expressions were priceless, conveying so much with just a roll of the eyes. You wanted Dolly to save him and marry him.

There’s talk that Hello, Dolly! is going to be revived soon on Broadway. A note to the producers: PLEASE cast Tony Sheldon as Horace. You won’t do any better.

My score on this is an A for Klea Blackhurst and an A- for this production. It missed out on a straight A because of the weak Cornelius and for cutting the scene where Dolly hires “Ernestina.” That can be done so quickly, I don’t know why it was cut. If I were a first-time viewer I would have been puzzled by Ernestina’s appearance, not knowing Dolly hired her.

Looking forward to the next Dolly. And there will be a next one.

P.S. Is there an actress out there who can do SOMETHING with Ermengarde and make her crying actually funny?

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