By Kimberly Rau
“Hello Dolly,” the 1960s musical based on Thornton Wilder’s 1930s farce, may not be about much in terms of story (she’s a matchmaker, conveniently, everyone she encounters wants to be matched up it seems), but it’s a big musical nonetheless. There are several major dance numbers, a huge ensemble, multiple set and costume changes and a steam engine. Add to it that the lead has to be someone with impeccable comedic timing, not to mention a voice that rivals icons such as Bette Midler and Carol Channing, and you’ve got some big theatrical shoes to fill if you mount a tour of “Dolly.”
Lucky for us, that’s exactly what this Broadway-quality tour has brought to Providence. It’s a bright, colorful classic Broadway show where the biggest conflict is a wallet mix-up and the antagonist isn’t so much a villain as he is set in his ways and cranky. Warren Carlyle’s vaudeville-style choreography pairs exquisitely with Jerry Herman’s upbeat tunes that carry you through the (pretty witty) script. The plot is a little dated and simple, but at its core, the show is still a farce. You aren’t watching it for the in-depth story line. Two and a half hours has never flown so quickly.
The dancing is tight and the set and costumes are beautiful, but all the window dressing in the world can’t save you if your cast is a dud. Once again, “Dolly” pulls out all the stops and comes through in a big way. Carolee Carmello as Dolly Gallagher Levi is everything you could ask for. As I said earlier, the woman who takes on this role needs chops. The show relies on physical comedy for a lot of its laughs, so she’d better know how to act with her whole body. Carmello has that in spades. There’s a courtroom scene in the second act that would be death if the person playing Dolly didn’t know how to hold a room, and Carmello has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand from curtain to curtain. That’s not even getting into her voice, which is a powerhouse that exceeds the (extensive) expectations for the role. The hardheaded Horace Vandergelder is absolutely Dolly’s straight man (though he’s got some good punch lines of his own as well) and the incredible John Bolton rises to the challenge with deceptive ease. His voice is smooth and strong, his timing is on point, and it’s a treat to watch him star in a scene or go toe to toe with Carmello.
Daniel Beeman and Sean Burns as shopkeepers Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, respectively, also shine in every scene they’re in. They play off each other perfectly, throwing jokes back and forth and hitting every target in terms of physical comedy (it really cannot be overstated how much this show needs actors that know how to play farce well). They’re a joy to watch, either interacting with each other or with the objects of their affections, Irene Molloy and Minnie Fay. Chelsea Cree Groen as Minnie, Molloy’s assistant, has a somewhat unassuming character at first, but Hickman quickly proves she’s vocally and physically up to whatever challenges the show throws at her. Jenny Hickman as the hat maker Irene Molloy has less to do in terms of farce but more to do vocally, and her solo song “Ribbons Down My Back” is absolutely beautiful.
This is the kind of big show that paved the way for the more modern musicals we know and love, and it deserves all the acclaim it gets. If you can get into Providence before Sunday evening, it would be well worth your time to get re-acquainted with (or meet for the first time) “Dolly.”
Hello Dolly runs through Sunday, March 8, at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St., Providence. Tickets can be obtained at the box office, online at ppacri.org, or by calling 401-421-2787.