Half-a-Millionaire Matchmaker: Light Opera Works’ ‘Hello, Dolly!’ is solid gold

Mary Robin Roth *is* Dolly Gallagher Levi.

Move over Patti Stanger. Meddling matchmaker Dolly Levi is taking over
Manhattan (by way of Evanston, Il.), and she’s got turn-of-the-century romances brewing in every corner.

Hello, Dolly! composer and lyricist Jerry Herman recently received a Kennedy Center Honor (I found the broadcast of his tribute painfully embarrassing for all involved, but rather than explain why, just read this analysis by Kevin Daly — my thoughts mirror his completely), and it’s not hard to see why after watching one of his shows. He brought shameless joy and celebration to the Broadway stage, and wrote some of the best roles for mature musical comedy leading ladies.

This is particularly the case with Dolly, which is one of the most beloved musicals around. Light Opera Works’ unfettered production, directed and choreographed by Rudy Hogenmiller, keeps focus on the music, comedy and budding relationships. In the title role, Mary Robin Roth is a force. I’ve never seen her work before, and I was taken aback by her full-throated approach to this iconic role. This is a working class Dolly, full of vigor and spirited determination. She’s having a joy up there, selling her songs with old-school showbiz pizzazz, and it’s simply infectious.

As the love hungry Cornelius Hackl, Robert Brady is a big teddy bear of an actor with a very pleasant singing voice. I hope, and expect, to see more of him. His “It Only Takes a Moment” provides a heartfelt highlight in act two. As his love interest, the “wicked” millineress Irene Malloy, Jessye Wright left a strange taste in my mouth. While I enjoyed her scene work (she seems to be channeling Marianne McAndrew from the 1969 film), her impressive, legit-to-a-fault singing voice seems at odds with the material. Pull back on the opera diction — this ain’t Puccini. As the “character couple” of Barnaby Tucker and Minnie Fay, the super-talented Danielle Plisz and Patrick Tierney do all they can with their stock parts. And Peter Verdico, who was an ideal Mushnick in La Costa’s Little Shop of Horrors offers a suitably curmudgeonly “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder.

Costume designer Emily Nelson has fitted Roth in some appropriately ridiculous befeathered hats and gowns, accessorized by a boa or three. (However, her “Hello Dolly” gown, which is different from the production photo above, was a tad tacky. Did they really have rainbow sequins in the late 1900s?) The full orchestra, under the direction of Roger L. Bingaman, provides a rich, round sound that’s too often missing from musicals — though they could ramp up the energy in a few spots. Choreography by Hogenmiller for the young ensemble ranged from serviceable to very good.

While the handsome chorus jubilantly sings “Dolly’ll never go away again!,” you only have until Jan. 2 to catch Light Opera Works’ joyous production. Don’t let this parade pass you by!

“Hello, Dolly!” plays through Jan. 2 at the Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston, Il. More info here >

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