"Hello, Dolly!" is a big musical and the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre is small. Its in-the-round stage is only 13-by-16-feet, so the current production spills over into every available corner and aisle. It's still a tight fit, but the advantage is that this show set, in New York and Yonkers in the 1890s, is taking place all around you.
There's something of a disadvantage, too, because this uneven production's less successful elements also are at close quarters. On balance, it's a lively staging of a 1964 Broadway show whose music and lyrics by Jerry Herman are always nice to hear again.
The title character is so closely associated with the original star to play the part, Carol Channing, that it's a challenge for anybody else to play Dolly Gallagher Levi. Other notable actors have been able to make the role their own, however, provided they possess sharp comic timing and a distinctive personality.
Unfortunately, the Dolly cast in the Spotlighters production, Maribeth Eckenrode, proves to be a mixed blessing. She looks fine in period costumes, as, for that matter, do all 15 actors, thanks to costume designer Laura Nicholson's colorfully elaborate turn-of-the-century outfits.
Eckenrode is quite good at capturing Dolly's brassy personality in her dialogue, but she needs more stage presence when it comes to singing. Her delivery of "Before the Parade Passes By," for instance, has the right emotional qualities and yet sounds vocally thin. She needs to belt.
The central irony in the show's book by Michael Stewart is that the widowed, middle-aged Dolly is trying to arrange marriages for several other characters and yet seems to be getting the cold shoulder from the Yonkers merchant, Horace VanderGelder (Bob Ahrens), that she'd like to see as her own next husband. The comic dialogue between these two characters often falls flat in this production, because Ahrens has a shaky command of his lines. That hurts a musical in which the romantic patter needs to be slick.
Other performers fare much better. VanderGelder's two young shop assistants, Cornelius Hackl (Bart Debicki) and Barnaby Tucker (Jeff Baker), work together as smoothly as a vaudeville team. Both also sing well, especially Debicki with "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment."
The other supporting performance that really stands out is Holly Gibbs as a spirited young woman named Minnie Fay. Gibbs acts, sings and dances with such exuberance that the show is fully alive when she's on stage. Among other actors making a nice impression in the large cast are Eileen del Valle, Justin Johnson and Rachel Vehaaren.
There's enough talent on stage that this production has its share of lovely musical moments. Among the prettiest is when Debicki, Baker, Gibbs and del Valle join together for "Elegance." It's at such times that you'll be really glad you're seeing and hearing the elegantly clad performers at such close quarters.
Such vocal excellence makes it all the more unfortunate that the musical accompaniment throughout the show consists of tinny recorded music that hurts the ears.
Try to tune out that accompaniment and there are plenty of musical numbers to enjoy. Director Fuzz Roark and choreographer Kristen Cooley do a good job of getting the ensemble to vigorously sing and dance their way around the theater. Although the floor space is as constricting as a Victorian corset, clever choreography keeps the action flowing.
There's no getting around the fact that this Broadway musical's grandeur can only be hinted at on this stage. This is particularly apparent in the show-stopping title tune, when a dolled up Dolly descends a grand staircase and is rapturously received by the entire company. The compact set design here only gives Dolly four steps to descend, so it's not exactly a regal entrance.
Part of the charm of this community theater over its 50-year history, of course, is that it hasn't been afraid to tackle the biggest shows on the smallest stage. That can-do spirit makes it easy to join the nearby crowd greeting Dolly.
"Hello Dolly" runs through May 20 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, at 817 St. Paul Street in Baltimore. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20, $18 for seniors and $16 for students. Call 410-752-1225 or go to http://www.spotlighters.org.