If Mount Rushmore had been carved to enshrine Broadway musicals rather than presidents, the four faces gazing majestically out from the mountain might look something like this: Yul Brynner as the King of Siam; Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins; Ethel Merman as Mama Rose — and Carol Channing as Dolly Gallagher Levi.
Yes, in playing the yenta who goes to Yonkers in “Hello, Dolly!,” Channing earned a spot among the immortals, stars who did not put their stamp on roles as much as devour them whole, so that no matter what else happened, the parts would always and forever be tattooed with their visages and essences.
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).
All four excel. Olivera applies her crystalline soprano to a lovely rendition of Irene’s ballad, “Ribbons Down My Back,” and Colonna proves to be as appealingly jejune as any Barnaby in “Dolly” history.
Opel, for her part, attacks the exhilaratingly schmaltzy solo that closes the first act, “Before the Parade Passes By,” with the fierceness — and vocal power — it deserves. And from that point on, “Hello, Dolly!” rolls steadily down the tracks of securely fastened musical-comedy merriment.
The Ford’s and Signature co-production, which had its official opening Saturday night, leans heavily on costume designer Wade Laboissonniere to flood the stage with exuberance: bold plaid suits for Cornelius and Barnaby, the clerks who desert Vandergelder’s feed store for a night on the town, and big bows and elaborately draped bodices for the ladies’ gowns. Special panache is reserved for Dolly, who in a gown of gorgeous red silk walks a carpet of the same color that’s unfurled for her by the waiters at Harmonia Gardens who croon the title number that Louis Armstrong made a standard.
One can quibble with the disappointing visual details of the snazzy restaurant in which the scarlet huntress corners Horace, her quarry: a couple of wagons set for dinner? A few sad strings of Christmas lights? But you won’t argue at all with Camp’s dynamic interpretation of the famous waiter dance. Six dancers — four men, two women — embody with carbonated energy the burst of joy the establishment experiences in Dolly’s presence. There’s tap and leaping and a few virtuoso flips. It’s a caliber of Broadway savvy that should be a regular feature of revivals of golden-age musicals in these parts.
The production is a testament, too, to the craftsmanship in Herman’s score, boasting as many vivid flavors as a roll of rainbow Life Savers. “Hello, Dolly!,” it seems, remains as unruffled by little bumps in the road as Dolly Levi herself. Rarely has a songwriter made so sure a musical would hum. Inevitably, you do, too.
music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Michael Stewart. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Karma Camp; music direction, James Moore; orchestrations, Kim Scharnberg; set, Adam Koch; costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, David Budries; wigs and makeup, Cookie Jordan. With Carolyn Cole, Maria Egler, Ben Lurye, Kyle Vaughn, Stephen F. Schmidt. About 2 hours 5 minutes. Through May 18 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Call 800-982-2787 or visit www.fords.org.