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Goodspeed scores with a dynamic 'Dolly'

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published July 23. 2013 4:00AM
Diane Sobolewski photo
Left to right, Catherine Blades, Jeremy Morse, Brooke Shapiro, Charles MacEachern, Ashley Brown and Spencer Moses, in a dance number from "Hello Dolly" at Goodspeed.

Goodspeed Musicals' production of "Hello, Dolly" is like the title character herself - endlessly animated and boundlessly optimistic.

Granted, this Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart confection is the ultimate feel-good musical to begin with. Every song is rousing, and the script is joke-filled.

But, still, many a "Dolly" have gone spectacularly wrong before. Goodspeed's, on the other hand, gets it right.

Director Daniel Goldstein, who helmed the 2011 Broadway revival of "Godspell," powers the production with an indefatigable energy. I love, too, the confidence Goldstein displays in letting a couple of comic moments last and last, building the humor until theatergoers are shrieking with laughter (at least on the night I saw the show). In one bit, Jeremy Morse, playing Barnaby Tucker, holds a stunned look as he finds enormous riches in what he thought was his all-but-empty wallet. In another, Dolly, wearing an oblivious poker face, noshes on food - including a long-lasting corn cob - while her cohorts wait in a courtroom for her help.

If Goldstein is The Guiding Genius here, he's got a brilliant co-conspirator in choreographer Kelli Barclay. The "Waiters' Gallop" number is so creatively designed and so phenomenally danced that the male ensemble received the kind of extended applause and hoot-filled hurrahs usually reserved for the star of a show. Not that it's surprising, considering that this number includes guys executing a cossack dance while clapping together silver trays as if they were cymbals, and men pouring champagne into bottles while moving across the stage in a chorus line.

For "Before the Parade Passes By," Barclay has dancing couples swirl and whirl on and off and around the stage; it feels like it does when a movie camera dollies dizzyingly in circles around characters.

The stagecraft is part of the fun, too. A staircase telescopes onto the Goodspeed Opera House's famously small stage to allow for the iconic "Hello, Dolly" sequence. A store's tall bookcase from one scene gets tipped onto its side in another so it can transform into a bench of train seats; actresses spin parasols to mimic locomotive wheels and lights pulsate in the background, as if sunlight were bouncing off objects as the train zooms by.

Even the opening hints of the eye candy to come. Hanging on-stage is a sepia scrim of a 19th-century New York street scene that looks almost three-dimensional. As the overture begins, a changing light turns the scrim a vivid shade of red, as the horn section leads a celebratory burst of the signature song "Hello, Dolly." Talk about setting the mood.

After all, Dolly herself is nothing if not A Big Presence. Klea Blackhurst gives Dolly a Merman-esque moxie here, and no wonder: Blackhurst is known for her Ethel Merman tribute show, "Everything the Traffic Will Allow." She trumpets her songs with who-needs-a-microphone vivacity. If her acting is a bit short on nuance, who cares? She still gets at Dolly's core; the matchmaking character is meddlesome, yes, but she glows with good will and never lets a "no" get in her way.

Someone who is constantly telling her "no" is Horace Vandergelder, the half-millionaire for whom widow Dolly has set her cap. Tony Sheldon yells and fumes and erupts as Horace. (A bit less of the yelling and a bit more ambivalent affection toward Dolly might have been prudent.)

Sheldon, who was nominated for a Tony for his role in "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" on Broadway, holds his own with the potent Blackhurst. He provides a boisterous boss to his hapless employees, the aforementioned Barnaby Tucker and Cornelius Hackl. Cornelius is played here by Spencer Moses, who looks like a cross between John Waters and Stretch Cunningham. He nicely reflects Cornelius' naivete and earnestness, although he doesn't make quite the impression that Blackhurst and Sheldon do - or that Ashley Brown, who plays Cornelius' love interest Irene Malloy, does. Brown was the original Mary Poppins in the recent Broadway musical, and you can easily see why she was cast in that role.

She possesses a kindly presence and a silvery voice, used to fine effect at Goodspeed on the dreamy "Ribbons Down My Back."

Speaking of ribbons, we have to mention the costumes designed by Wade Laboissoniere. They look rich, rich, rich. "Put Your Sunday Clothes Away" provides a procession of men in plaid suits and bowler hats, and women in yards and yards of thick, luxurious fabric. The females' hats are topped with so many quirky, unidentifiable elements, they are like millinery Rorschach tests.

Goodspeed, which is marking its 50th anniversary, has never staged "Dolly" before now. I dare say it was worth the wait.

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IF YOU GO

What: "Hello, Dolly!"

Where: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam

When: Through Sept. 14; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturady, and 2 p.m. Sunday; also performances on certain Tuesdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 6:30 p.m., as well as 2 p.m. Aug. 13 and 27

Tickets: Start at $27; all prices subject to change based on availability

Contact: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org

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