Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi, widowed too soon and left to her own devices in 1890s New York, turns meddling into a sly, lucrative art. She "arranges things, like furniture and daffodils and lives," all the while looking out discreetly for No. 1.
And when she decides on a plot to snare as her next husband the well-known "half-a-millionaire" Horace Vandergelder in Yonkers, she generates plenty of frantic activity — and one of the best of the grand, old-fashioned musicals.
Since its premiere in 1964, "Hello, Dolly!" has maintained a prominent place in the Broadway canon, thanks to terrific source material (Thornton Wilder's 1955 play "The Matchmaker," adopted for the musical by Michael Stewart); an ear-friendly score by Jerry Herman; and a juicy title role that has given many a singing (or mildly tune-carrying) actress an enviable showcase.
That said, "Hello, Dolly!" doesn't get professional revivals every day, so its appearance in a co-production between Ford's Theatre Society and Signature Theatre is all the more notable.
This presentation in the historic Ford's venue offers a fresh take, small and unfussy in scale, pared down in sound — more a play with music than the full-bodied musical you may be expecting.
The staging, guided fluently by Eric Schaeffer, does take some adjusting to, given all the downsizing. There are only 16 people in the cast, including choristers/dancers, so the big production numbers look pretty thin (Karma Camp's choreography could use a few more splashes of invention to make up for that).
Adam Koch's set design conjures time and place simply, and reuses a minimum of props to allow a rapid progression of scenes. But a visual jolt (besides Wade Laboissonniere's lively costumes) would be nice now and then, especially when it comes time for Dolly — endearingly portrayed by Nancy Opel — to deliver the show's famous namesake song.
There is no grand staircase for the toast of the town to descend for her return to the Harmonia Gardens restaurant. No stairs at all. Not much in the way of glittery ambience, either. She just walks out and gets down to business on the same flat, uncluttered space where everything else transpires. And the subsequent dinner scene is oddly short on food.
On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for the way the production offers such an immediate, intimate encounter with the familiar characters and brings the story into tight focus.
Much to be said, too, for the fresh orchestrations by Kim Scharnberg, who, using eight players (expertly led by James Moore), evokes a vintage ragtime ensemble — fully appropriate for the time period of the action and well-suited to Herman's score. (It would have been nice to encourage more individualistic, playful phrasing from the singers to go with the new sound.)
The shadow of the role's iconic originator, Carol Channing, continues to loom large over "Hello, Dolly!" but there are many ways to play the character (including the Mae West-infused approach that Barbra Streisand settled on for her undervalued performance in the film version).
Opel, who has a touch of Debbie Reynolds' winsomeness about her, plays Dolly in a refreshing, straightforward way. She can be very funny, without underlining things, and she allows a vulnerability to peek through, nowhere more touchingly than in her hushed, halting start of "Before the Parade Passes By." Opel is not a born belter, but she can summon more than enough power when required.
Although Edward Gero is not the most colorful Vandergelder imaginable, his polished performance scores effective points. As the woefully underpaid Vandergelder Hay and Feed employees who get into delicious trouble sneaking off to New York, Gregory Maheu (Cornelius Hackl) and Zack Colonna (Barnaby Tucker) do vibrant work.
Tracy Lynn Olivera is a warm, witty Irene Molloy, the milliner caught up in Dolly's schemes, and she sings "Ribbons Down My Back," one of Herman's most beguiling songs, with exceptional nuance. The rest of the cast, especially Carolyn Cole as Vandergelder's whiny niece Ermengarde, fills out the show nicely.
In the end, not quite a life-changing "Hello, Dolly!" but an affectionate and welcoming production that reaffirms the still-crowin', still-glowin' quality of an authentic American classic.