‘Dolly!’ in D.C.: So nice to have her back where she belongs
By Peter Marks
Monday, April 1, 2013
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.
PREVIEW: Remember the time when Washington saved ‘Hello, Dolly!’?
By Nelson Pressley
Well, hello again, “Dolly!”
It has been nearly 50 years since Carol Channing and a dazzling cluster of high-stepping waiters found their footing in the pre-Broadway tryout of a shaky new musical called “Hello, Dolly!” at the National Theatre. The premiere had just fizzled in Detroit. Producer David Merrick threatened to close the show rather than watch it crash and burn in New York.
Luckily, “Dolly!” stopped at the National first.
“It was a makeover,” says Marge Champion, who was then married to the show’s director and choreographer, Gower Champion. (The two were an acclaimed dance team at the time.) “Really, I would say more than half the show was made over between opening in Detroit and in New York.”
A new production will parade onto the Ford’s Theatre stage Friday, and the co-producing team at Ford’s and Signature Theatre knows what Champion and composer-lyricist Jerry Herman proved: The show works.
“It all happened at the National,” says Herman, 81.
The tuneup was a triumph from the first night – Dec. 19, 1963, only a month after John F. Kennedy was assassinated -- even though major changes were still being rehearsed during the four-week stand. In Washington, Champion devised new staging. Herman and book writer Michael Stewart continued to sand their adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” a charming comedy about a matchmaking widow who thaws the heart of the stingy widower Horace Vandergelder. “Before the Parade Passes By,” a big new number for Channing, was put in to end the first act.
The historic result was 2,844 Broadway performances, a record when the show closed in 1970. Also a record was the 10 Tony Awards “Dolly!” collected -- a mark that stood for nearly 40 years. Winners included Herman, Channing, Champion, Stewart, costume designer Freddy Wittop, and set designer Oliver Smith, who would spearhead the redesign of the National’s interior 20 years later. (It’s the same design you see today.)
The prickly Merrick-Champion relationship continued through several more shows, ending when Champion died in 1980 (at age 59) the afternoon that his “42nd Street” opened on Broadway. Notoriously, Merrick announced Champion’s death from the stage during the ebullient curtain call, stunning the cast and audience alike. Merrick, a publicity-wise theatrical titan known widely as “the abominable showman,” died in 2000.
Nearly a dozen people involved on stage and behind the scenes recently took time to recall the turning point for “Dolly!”
Where he is now: Miami Beach
“In Detroit, I took a deep breath and realized how much work there was to do to straighten out pieces that were individually very good. The opening number was always very right, and of course the title song was a smash from the first time we put it on stage. There was wonderful dialogue by Mike Stewart that needed no help at all. But they were pieces. And at the National we were able to put it all together.
“Detroit was terrible. It truly was. That’s why the experience at the National was so extra wonderful, because we even softened David Merrick.”
Role: Dolly Levi
Where she is now: Rancho Mirage, Calif., recovering from a fractured vertebrae. Channing, 92, replied to e-mailed questions.
“I was so crazy in love with the script. Now, I was nervous about my own performance . . . I wanted to give Jerry everything he wanted from me. I measured everything by his opinion.
“ ‘Before the Parade Passes By’ was very important and became the spine of the show. Jerry called me late at night to his room to hear it and then we woke Gower and Marge up around 2 a.m. to come to Jerry’s room to hear it. They were as thrilled with it as we were.
“Americans desperately needed a feel-good moment, an escape, and ‘Dolly!’ was it. In fact, Mrs. Kennedy would eventually bring Caroline to a ‘Dolly!’ matinee at the St. James Theatre in New York. I believe it was their first non-political public appearance. They came backstage, and Caroline was in awe of the train and Dolly’s prop carpet bag. I made them give it to her. I received a thank-you note from Jackie saying that Caroline was going door to door with the bag, offering services like Dolly does in the show.
“You never know if ‘this’ audience is going to ‘get it.’ The performances at the National gave us all a secure feeling, and enough encouragement to face New York.”
Role: Gower Champion’s right hand; she helped coach Channing in movement. “I worked with her before we even went in to rehearsal,” says Champion, 93. “She was able to stand up straight and come down those stairs.”
Where she is now: New York, and still an active board member with Jacob’s Pillow and the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
“Ah, yes, I remember it well. The first act had ended on [character Horace] Vandergelder, and Gower just knew that that was wrong.
“Gower had several other people in mind [for Dolly]. When he got the idea for the Waiters’ Gallop (dance scene in which the waiters perform cartwheels as they set tables) is when he decided that it really needed a larger-than-life person. It was such a change from Lorelei Lee [Channing’s role in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’] and all those flapper things. And she came in and they worked until five in the morning. That’s when he decided to have other people who could be larger than life, as well.
“David Merrick was always explosive. When he came to Detroit, Gower went to Ypsilanti and told the stage manager to tell Mr. Mustache that when he leaves he’ll come and fix the show. Gower knew how to handle him by then.
“It was all very fortuitous, and it seemed like everybody wanted it to be a success. And it was. Thornton Wilder always said it was. He really made some money on it.”
Role: Rudolph, the head waiter; it was his only Broadway appearance. “If you’re going to do one Broadway musical, do one of the top 10 of all time,” he says. In the 1970s, Hartman became the first host of ABC’s “Good Morning, America” and star of NBC’s drama “Lucas Tanner.” Hartman, 77, also helped stage-manage the show for two years.
Where he is now: Durham, N.C. In recent years, he has narrated for the North Carolina Symphony and been host of the “Walk Through” neighborhood documentaries with New York’s WNET.
“We came to Washington and rehearsed changes every day, besides doing the show at night. It was a real work in progress. ‘Parade’ didn’t go into the show until that last week in the National Theatre, and there were no costumes for it until we got to New York.
“Gower was a perfectionist. He wanted people’s attention to stay on something specific for a period of time, then dart to something else. He wanted your attention to keep dancing around the stage. You were constantly energized and in motion as you were watching it. He was brilliant.”
Role: Ernestina, chorus
Where she is now: Los Angeles, playing the voice of Mrs. Puff on “SpongeBob SquarePants,” with recent appearances on “Glee” and “2 Broke Girls.” “I’m basically retired,” says Catlett, 74. “But as Dolly said, I put my hand in.
“In Detroit, we all just were crestfallen because we really thought we had a show. ‘Before the Parade’ was a tremendous amount of money at that time to change the whole number and costumes. I loved being Brunhilde in the parade. It was beautiful, but a whole lot of work. I didn’t get to sightsee much in Washington.
“Carol was just amazing. I remember the audience standing up after every show, clapping, and tears in their eyes, some of them. When Carol came out in white dress and white hat, they went crazy.”
Role: Waiter, chorus
Where he is now: Oklahoma, where he grew up and whence he returned after more than 48 years living in the same Greenwich Village apartment.
“In 1995, I decided no more showbiz,” Young says. “I was always very usable to play opposite star ladies. I looked good, I was competent and they could get me cheap.” He has since worked as a marketer and archivist for Merrill Lynch, and as a professional organizer. He still sings concerts and national anthems locally: “Now my voice has a freedom it never had before because I don’t need a job with it.” See his book, “The Only Boy Who Danced.”
“It was a biggie for me. My first show, my first audition. I didn’t know we were in trouble in Detroit, and that they’d brought other composers to work with Jerry, or any of that.
“I wanted to see the Washington Monument. I climbed all the stairs, only to discover when we came in for rehearsal we were doing ‘Parade.’ By the end of the day, my thighs were just screaming.”
Role: Minnie Fay. Lee also played Tiger Lily in the 1954 “Peter Pan” with Mary Martin.
Where she is now: New York, still directing, teaching acting and painting. She wrote the 2009 memoir “I’ve Slept With Everybody.” “The title is just a catchy tune, that’s all,” says Lee, 75. “It’s a loving book about the theater.” Lee is working on the sequel, “As I Was Saying.”
“I had a history with David Merrick. In every show I would go up to his office and say, ‘Mr. Merrick, you have to let me go. I really can’t do the part. And he’d say, ‘Sondra’s here again; the show’s going to be a smash!’ ”
“At one point, they wanted Minnie Fae to play the accordion. I hated it. I tried once or twice to learn. I said, ‘I can’t do this. I won’t do this. And my boob gets caught in it.’ And that was that. It never got in.
“Gower wasn’t a huggy guy. He was rather reserved. But as a choreographer, he worked very much like an abstract painter. He saw big movement. And he had a great sense of theater.”
Role: Dancer. Her married name is Iacino, but during “Dolly!” she was known as “Buttons” Leonard, a nickname she picked up as one of the June Taylor dancers on “The Jackie Gleason Show.” She signed her name “Buttons” on the audition sheet, hoping Champion would remember her.
Where she is now: Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Iacino, 68, has run dance studios in that area for 44 years.
“In Detroit they said ‘Hello, Dolly!’ is ‘Goodbye, Dolly!’
“Gower was probably the nicest person to work for, definitely very genuine and very caring. He liked new young talent. He liked freshness. Ron Young was just in from Oklahoma. I had worked for a year on the Gleason show.
“David Merrick was tough. I never really spoke to him, but everyone was scared when he was around.”
Where she is now: Tucson, retired for two years. Mathis ran a ballet school in Minnesota for 23 years, and recently worked with the Boston Ballet and the Boston Lyric Opera; at one point, she was a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. Among her dance routines in “Dolly!” she also played a dancing horse.
“I was the back end of the horse,” says Mathis, 70. “Jan LaPrade was the front end. We were on ‘What’s My Line?’ together.
“It was my only Broadway show. Gower was very kind to me. They knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer, so I had a special clause in my contract that would release me if I got work with a ballet company. And that is what eventually happened. Gower was so supportive, and he came to see my performances.
“David Merrick wanted more women on stage. We weren’t out there like showgirls. All the big numbers in second act were all men. He wasn’t very confident in that idea.”
Where he is now: Retired after performing into the mid-1990s, when he began working on music for “Sesame Street.” Craig, 71, now splits time with his wife (also a performer) between Florida and upstate New York.
“At the end in Washington, we learned ‘Parade.’ What they neglected to do was put it in a key that the cast could sing in. We’re singing in a key that only dogs could hear. You could see Michael and Jerry and Gower at the back of the house, howling with laughter.
“Gower and David Merrick gave a party at the Willard, and at that party they played the not-yet-released Louis Armstrong record of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ We all heard that and looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to be a big hit.’
“In Washington, they made an announcement early in the run: No one in the company is to get their hair cut anymore, except for Joel, because my hair was long. Channing turns to me in the wings and says, ‘My uncle was a barber. I know how to cut hair.’ She did a terrific job. She cut my hair for the next two years, until she left the show.”
Where she is now: In New York, still dancing occasionally, including in the 2007 movie “Enchanted.”
“I still go to class,” says Barth, 75. “I have to. Mentally, I need it, and physically it keeps you in great shape.” She works with “Dancers Over 40,” and a recent YouTube video shows Barth talking about Champion in a panel moderated by Hartman.
“Gower was great. In Detroit, he would count the walkouts, and the next morning he said, ‘I know what I have to do to fix this.’ The dance numbers always worked. He was so creative, but also he let you put in your own feelings. He didn’t steal from you, but he took what you were giving and worked with it.
“He always had a plan. He never came in cold. He didn’t believe in dancers standing around. I got close to him; he claimed I had his style down. During down time in rehearsals he would waltz me around. He said it was relaxing for him, and it sure was relaxing for me.”
Barth, reached in Florida, passes the phone to:
Role: Carpenter with the stage crew. (Barth and Siccardi have been seeing each other for a couple of years.)
Where he is now? New York. Last year, the longtime production manager of more than 200 Broadway shows received a Tony Award Honor for Excellence in the Theater.
“It was very busy, especially with Gower changing things. But you never brought in the same show you went out of town with. For ‘Dolly!’ just the one scene changed, that’s all. We used the whole set otherwise. Gower knew what he wanted, and Oliver Smith designed it for him. It was more about costume changes than the set.
“Nicole and I are looking at each other. Fifty years? My God.”