By Nancy Churnin.
Photos by Julia Cervantes.
Above photo: Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi.
There’s an old, but deeply satisfying trope about the clueless female who is adored by a man she assumes is either hostile or indifferent to her.
Consider Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games. Buttercup and Wesley in The Princess Bride. And now, add Dolly Levi and Horace Vandergelder to the list.
What? Have I lost my mind? No, but I have a fresh appreciation for Jerry Herman’s 1964 Tony Award-winning classic, Hello, Dolly! after experiencing the incandescent national tour presented by Dallas Summer Musicals and Broadway Across America.
Fort Worth’s own Betty Buckley, who won a Tony in 1983 for Cats, stars as Dolly in this acclaimed Tony Award-winning Broadway revival, directed by Jerry Zaks, which continues through July 29 at the Music Hall at Fair Park.
Buckley is at once an unusual and inspired choice for the role. While she’s a longtime musical theater star as well as a luminary of the big and small screens, she’s not known for musical comedy as her famed predecessors, the late, great Carol Channing, who originated and was long identified with the role, and Bette Midler, who received the 2017 Tony for her larger than life turn in the Broadway revival.
While Buckley delivers laughs, she also illuminates emotional connections and vulnerabilities I’d never seen in this show before.
Which brings us back to Dolly and Horace. The musical, adapted from The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder, has long been viewed as a vehicle for Dolly, a bit of a female con and opportunist, who makes the farce float by manipulating the widowed and wealthy Horace to marry her. Sure, Dolly makes stuff up, but we like her because Horace needs some de-Grinching and Dolly isn’t in it out of greed – she genuinely wants to spread his money where it’s most needed and help his family, employees and the larger community.
So far, so fun.
But here’s the thing. Buckley’s Dolly isn’t brash. She’s vulnerable. Without changing the script, she digs deep into the monologue where she talks about having been in a haze for 10 years since the death of her beloved husband Ephraim Levy.
Suddenly, new questions bubble up. Is this a story about a woman seeing an opportunity in a rich widower and grabbing it? Or is this the story of a woman being coaxed out of her haze by someone who loves her and knows that if he is too direct, she’ll slip further away?
Consider this. The story begins after Dolly has already been employed as Horace’s matchmaker for who knows how long. What if asking Dolly to find him someone to marry was the only way for Horace to nudge a woman who cannot say no to someone who asks for help out of her shell of mourning? What if he is always yelling that he is never going to marry her, because he doesn’t want her to suspect his true intentions – and at the same time to put the idea in her head?
So much makes sense from this perspective. Consider the iconic scene where Dolly enters the Harmonia Gardens in that glittering red dress with the feathers and they sing the signature song, “Hello, Dolly!” I felt tenderness on the part of the incredible, lithe ensemble, almost as if they were encouraging her, supporting her while trying not to overwhelm a bird ever so tentatively starting to flap her wings again.
The waiters are celebrating a dear, beloved friend they’d missed after 10 years of absence. Dolly is someone they’d worried about. They loved this patron who had bothered to learn their names, who noticed if someone lost weight, who saw them all as handsome and, probably, helped out here and there as best she could, because that’s the kind of thing she and Ephraim would have done.
And when Buckley sings “Look at the old girl now, fellas,” she peeks over her shoulder to see if she is still beautiful in their eyes, because she needs to see that reflection to build up her confidence to take her place in the world again.
As Horace, Lewis J. Stadlen suggests there’s more to this man than there first appears. As with Buckley, he knows where the laughs are and he delivers. At the same time, he ever so quietly and surely drops breadcrumbs that lead you down the path to his true agenda with Dolly. Near the end, when he’s home and hears a knock at the door, not knowing who’s on the other side, he says, “Dolly?” with such longing, you know that this is the way his heart was beating all along.
Herman is at once one of our greatest and most critically underrated musical theater composers. As with Irving Berlin before him, he often doesn’t get the credit he deserves because he makes what he does look too easy. But there’s a lot going on here that addresses the human condition in an unexpectedly profound way. We all, at some point in our lives, must cope with loss, loneliness, disappointment.
Happily, in a world with Jerry Herman, there’s always a song for that – a number that tells us to put on our Sunday clothes and get out there and to fill life with life before the parade passes by. It’s a message we need when times are tough – and when isn’t life tough, when you think about it?
There’s a reason that Pixar’s 2008 Academy Award-winning animated film, Wall-E, had the robot at the heart of the story learn about love from watching clips of the 1969 film Hello, Dolly! Wall-E focused on the charms of the young lovers, particularly Cornelius Hackl and Irene Molloy, exquisitely performed here by Nic Rouleau and Analisa Leaming. I like to think that as Wall-E and his true love, the robot Eve, age together, they ‘ll watch clips of Dolly and Horace, too. Or better yet, a live production of a show like this.
Hello, Dolly! continues through Monday, July 29, presented by Dallas Summer Musicals and Broadway Across America at the Music Hall at Fair Park. dallassummermusicals.org.
Watch the Hello Dolly YouTube Video: