Along then comes another actor in one of these parts — say, for instance, the impish Nancy Opel in Ford’s and Signature theaters’ well-made if slow-to-effervesce “Hello, Dolly!” — and theatergoers who know the clockwork-like Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart show are compelled to reflect on the eternal Channing imprint. That association is particularly rich in this city, given that the 1964 musical had a pivotal pre-Broadway engagement at Washington’s National Theatre and that Channing returned here in two subsequent tours. She is, to a special magnitude, D.C.’s Dolly.
In director Eric Schaeffer’s revival, distinguished at Ford’s by Karma Camp’s combustibly accomplished choreography, Opel manages to hold her own, and even, by the swift-to-arrive ending, bring Dolly’s assault on the mislaid heart of grumpy skinflint Horace Vandergelder (the solid Edward Gero) to a misty-eyed conclusion. Although she, like the production, only grows on you by degrees, you ultimately come to feel that the musical, and in particular Herman’s engagingly melodic and scrupulously character- and plot-enhancing score, has been done justice.
While Channing possesses the instincts of a clown, Opel’s are those of a sardonic comic; notably, she was Tony-nominated for her performance as the misanthropic Penelope Pennywise, singer of “It’s a Privilege to Pee” in the musical satire “Urinetown.” Her Dolly is more mischievous, more ladylike, than the outrageous Channing’s, and so her portrayal is closer to the Dolly Levi of Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker,” the play on which the show is based.
She’s also — and here’s where this “Dolly” resists its natural buoyancy — stingier about exposing her feelings to us. Schaeffer, whose own instincts are anti-nostalgic — he likes to pare things down, put brakes on sentimentality — here eschews the overture that had been added to revivals of the musical. The opening comic number, “I Put My Hand In,” begins on this occasion with a single mournful voice reminding us of the title character’s skills as a meddler. Framed by Adam Koch’s drab industrial set (an imposing bricked archway), the effects come across as joy-killingly saggy, as if the musical is taking a far too literal cue from Dolly’s grief over the death of husband Ephraim, rather than from Dolly’s indomitable spirit.
And so Schaeffer makes the story’s emotional arc a steeper climb, even though his production is lighter (a cast of 16, as opposed to the original 45). At just over two hours, it moves quickly; and with James Moore’s fine conducting of the eight-member band, paints a complete aural picture. You can feel the actors struggling through much of Act 1 to achieve “Dolly’s” pleasurable cruising altitude, which finally begins to occur in Irene Molloy’s hat shop, with the romantically melodic “Dancing.” Presided over by Opel, the number is imbued with a becoming tentativeness by couples falling in love in ¾ time: Irene (Tracy Lynn Olivera) and Cornelius (Gregory Maheu); and Minnie Fay (Lauren Williams) and Barnaby (Zack Colonna).