Theatre Arlington’s production of the classic musical comedy Hello, Dolly!, which opened the company’s 43rd season last Friday, stars Persis Ann Forster, a legend of the Arlington theater and dance scene who has guided the steps at the Miss Persis Dance Studio (located directly across the street from Theatre Arlington) for more than 40 years.
Her grouchy love interest, Horace Vandergelder, is played by Steven D. Morris, a frequent Theatre Arlington actor who recently retired from his day job of directing the theater program at Lamar High School for 27 years. The cast includes some of his former students.
But while these veterans hold the fort well enough in this production directed and choreographed by Brandon Mason, it is the supporting cast that steals the show.
This 1964 musical, by Jerry Herman (music) and Michael Stewart (book), reveals the life of its title character in sleepy little Yonkers, N.Y., in the 1880s. Dolly is extremely interested in the lives and loves of others, never missing an opportunity to be nosy and meddlesome.
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While she is highly entrepreneurial and boasts a number of professions, she is especially known as a matchmaker (the Thornton Wilder play on which the musical is based is titled The Matchmaker). Nearly all of her efforts in that area are intended to help others pair up, but when we meet her in this musical, she is determined to use her romantic coupling skills to help herself.
Those plans involve the grumpy feed store owner, Vandergelder.
Dolly’s plot is accidentally accelerated when Vandergelder takes a trip to meet a prospective wife in New York City, only to be unexpectedly followed there by (and tangled up with) Dolly and his two store clerks Cornelius (Wyn Delano) and Barnaby (Jonathan Hardin).
That latter pair have gone AWOL to see the bright lights of the big city and, hopefully, find female companionship. And they do just that when they hide from Vandergelder in a hat shop run by the lovely widow Mrs. Molloy (Diane Powell) and her assistant, Minnie Fae (Joanna Philips).
When the entire cast winds up at the same swanky restaurant, a series of mishaps and confrontations ensues that puts everybody’s well-laid plans in jeopardy.
Forster, who is no stranger to her role, brings outstanding presence, an assured bearing and a fine voice to her portrayal. But, the overall tone and tempo of her characterization is more Southern dame than Northern yenta. She needs more zip and bite in her deliveries.
This production finds it wings instead in the wonderful work turned in by the two pairs of younger lovers. Delano, who has the best part in that quartet, especially displays an impressive range of musical theater skills. He acts, sings and dances with equal ease.
Hardin’s Barnaby does not have the vocal demands of Cornelius, but he does an excellent job with his highly comic role. Powell offers some exquisitely sweet vocals, and Philips does as well as Hardin when it comes to making the show’s funniest elements work.
Another strong point is the choral singing by this large cast. While the individual vocal work is often first rate, this show is at its best when the troupe raises its voice as one.
Finally, there is an intangible factor that gives this show a special feel. Because Forster and Morris have earned so much respect and admiration for their decades of work in the arts in Arlington, this production serves as a celebration of them and all the community has done to support live theater so well for so long. Knowing that creates a warm glow in the room that reminds you what community theater is all about.
So there is little to fault in the performances and the friendly vibe of the show. But there are some shortcomings in the presentation.
The most disappointing aspect is that these fine singers work to a recorded soundtrack. The overall look of the show also leaves a lot to be desired. The costumes, by Stefanie Glenn, are beautifully done. But there are not really any sets — just a few backdrops and set pieces rolled in to suggest a change of scene. The restaurant scene is a particular let down in this regard.
Mason’s direction manages to keep anyone from being injured, but some of the big production numbers look like chaotic mob scenes, either because of the choreography or a lack of adequate preparation.
But the problems with those big scenes are probably mainly due to this show being too large for this room. Grand old musicals like this one need room to breathe (and dazzle), and the Theatre Arlington space chokes this show.
So these show may leave you with some conflicting opinions and emotions. There are a lot of ways it could be better. But it also can be embraced as the beating heart of the arts in Arlington.