First-rate 'Dolly' in 2nd Star's energetic production

2nd Star theater company is offering audiences a lively rendition of the 1964 Tony-winning Jerry Herman classic, "Hello Dolly!"— one that seems destined to set local benchmarks.

In the troupe's artfully nostalgic production at Bowie Playhouse, audiences are invited back to the 1890s, when hardworking clerks dream of sampling a swanky big-city restaurant — where their bosses and exquisitely gowned women are the clientele.

Serving as director and producer, 2nd Star president Jane B. Wingard delivers an award-worthy production with a dynamic cast, strong support from musical director Joe Biddle and his pit musicians, and skilled choreography by Vince Musgrave. Light and sound design is in the competent hands of Garrett Hyde.

In addition to directing, Wingard displays wizardry in set design, artfully creating city neighborhoods, authentic interiors of a feed shop and milliner's, and lavish dining rooms that welcome us into the lifestyle of the Gilded Age.

The history of "Hello Dolly!" is more than its record-setting 10 Tony awards and 2,844 Broadway performances — records that endured for years. It's also a story that carries the indelible imprint of original star Carol Channing. Her flamboyant Dolly was followed on Broadway by portrayals by Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable and Ethel Merman. The 1969 film version starred a 27-year-old Barbra Streisand, barely credible as a widow restarting her life, though Streisand's renditions of the title song and "Before the Parade Passes By" were notable.

Tackling this role in 2nd Star's production, we find a definitive Dolly delivered by Nori Morton, a favorite local leading lady. A widow, Dolly is ready to resume her career as a matchmaker and pick up the pieces of her life, helping young clients find loving partners.

Morton's Dolly is resourceful, quick-witted, warm and gentle, but also a delightfully taunting companion to half-millionaire client Horace Vandergelder, who has engaged her serves to help him find a wife.

To her multidimensional portrayal of Dolly Levi, Morton adds vocal artistry that includes heartfelt delivery of every lyric. Her natural grace is apparent in dance moves, enhanced by costumes that contribute to a beguiling and commanding stage presence.

Morton is supported has a strong ensemble of players who contribute to the overall excellence of this tuneful comedy. Gene Valendo plays miserly shop owner Horace Vandergelder, hinting at suppressed warmth lurking beneath the gruff exterior as he demands harder work from his head clerk Cornelius Hackl and assistant clerk Barnaby Tucker. Valendo is at his comic best sparring with Morton, who invariably outwits him.

As Cornelius, Nathan Bowen confirms his pre-eminence as a song-and-dance man, stylishly executing Musgrave's tricky choreography and delivering a show-stopping "It Only Takes a Moment" — one of Herman's most memorable tunes.

Bowen also has enough star power to avoid being overwhelmed by Morton's stage presence, and instead adds spark to her performance. Bowen also establishes great chemistry with his love interest, millinery shop owner Irene Molloy, played by Pam Shilling, who has one of the best singing voices in the show.

Southern High School 10th-grader Daniel Starnes makes a lively 2nd Star debut as clerk Barnaby, displaying vocal gifts as well as his dance athleticism and comedic artistry.

Also appearing in her first 2nd Star show is 16-year-old Broadneck High School student Colleen Coleman, credible as millinery shop clerk Minnie Fay, who becomes Barnaby's girlfriend.

Others contributing to this exciting production are ensemble players Josh Hampton as Ambrose Kemper, suitor of Vandergelder's niece; Emily Freeman as weepy niece Ermengarde; Rebecca Feibel as fun-loving Ernestina; Tom Sayles as hard-driving headwaiter Rudolph; Heather Jeweler as Mrs. Rose; and Mark Jeweler as the Judge.

Another 20 hardworking players contribute their talents to this production, singing and strutting, dancing through such classic show-stopping numbers as "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," "Before the Parade Passes By" and "Waiters' Gallop." Musgrave's work on these numbers recalls Broadway choreographer Gower Champion.

Bravos are also due for the terrific male ensemble dancers, who deliver a splendid version of "Hello, Dolly."

Although Dolly's costumes are the most spectacularly authentic, several other gowns are also stunning, as are the simpler dresses and male players' costumes, created by designer Linda Swann.

In her program message, Wingard notes that 2nd Star won a number of nominations and awards for productions last year, including a Readers' Choice Award, Washington Area Theatre Community Honors and a Ruby Griffith Award.

It seems likely that "Hello Dolly" will be on awards lists next season.

"Hello Dolly" continues at Bowie Playhouse at Whitemarsh Park, 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, Bowie, on weekends through June 29. Tickets can be ordered by calling 410-757-5700 or by visiting

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