She has a business card that indicates she's a perfect fit for whatever you need—from matchmaking to mandolin lessons. She's bold and brassy and lovable. She's Dolly Gallagher Levi, the title character in this musical that is now on it's Cleveland tour stop at Playhouse Square. It brings with it the enduring music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and charming book by Michael Stewart.
Trouble is, Dolly is mostly missing in action in her own show since, through no fault of her own, the superb Broadway star Betty Buckley has been miscast in that role that cries out for a different kind of performer.
Buckley made her bones in Cats as Grizabella, singing the heart-rending "Memory." That was back in 1983, when Buckley was a 30-something sensation. Since then, she has notched a galaxy of roles and honors on stage and in the musical world. What Buckley hasn't done, however, is develop the ability to fashion a quirky, eccentric and no-holds-barred approach to the Dolly character that can make this show really take flight.
This is not to say that there can't be other interpretations of clever, crafty Dolly. Performers from Ethel Merman to Pearl Bailey and from Tovah Feldshuh to Bernadette Peters have taken on the role and made it their own. But Buckley doesn't take a new kind of ownership of the role. Instead, she seems trapped on stage, forced to impersonate a brassy "belle of the ball" when it seems she'd rather be quietly cataloging books at a library.
It's a damn shame that the renowned Buckley finds herself in this situation, because there are many things about this production that are just fine. Even though the dialogue delivery, as directed by Jerry Zaks, vibrates somewhere between hyperventilated and over-torqued, both in volume and expression, certain performances stand out.
As the well-known Yonkers half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder, veteran actor Lewis J. Stadlen is a wonderfully reluctant target of Dolly's romantic schemes. And he even succeeds in throwing some lines away, amid this torrent of sound, to excellent comic effect. Those moments are rare treasures in a show where nothing is understated.
Stadlen also performs the Act Two opener, "Penny in My Pocket," that was cut from the original Broadway production. Although Stadlen could have more fun with it, the song is a cute little star turn staged in front of a closed curtain. It plays no role in the storytelling other than giving us a glimpse of blowhard Horace's philosophy of capitalism: Hang on like grim death to every coin that comes your way.
Also turning in amusing turns as Horace's two clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby, are Nic Rouleau and Jess LeProtto. Rouleau's Cornelius is so clean and naïve he almost squeaks when he walks. As the supposedly teenage hanger-on Barnaby, LeProtto looks old enough to be his own dad, but he adds some interesting acrobatics to his dancing. When they head off to NYC for some fast action (they are determined to kiss a girl), the joy and hope expressed in "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" is irresistible.
The smaller roles are handled with professional skill. Horace's niece Ermengarde (Morgan Kirner), she of the high-pitched whining, is just as irritating as ever. And it's still baffling why her suitor Ambrose (Garett Hawe) finds her constant sniveling attractive. But I guess that's what passed for sexy come-ons in turn-of-the-20th-Century Yonkers.
If you're looking for the best thing about Hello, Dolly!, you need look no further than the second act scene, "The Waiters Gallop," in the Harmonia Gardens restaurant. The male dancers assume a variety of acute bodily angles, carrying towering stacks of plates and weaving Gower Champion's original choreography into a delightful, synchronous froth under the supervision of the tour's choreographer Warren Carlyle. It's so good it's almost levitating.
Santo Loquasto's scenic and costume designs are also spectacular, drenched in color and smoothly transitioning from Horace's hay & feed store to the ritzy confines of a New York City nightclub.
All that said, this show is all about Dolly and the person who plays her. That's why, in this latest series of revivals, the woman who is Dolly gets above-the-title billing. As a result, you need someone whose name has the ring of stage stardom to justify that kind of candlepower.
While Betty Buckley has the big name (for theater junkies, at least) and the gold-plated resume, she just doesn't have the highly particular chops to make Dolly come alive. It is a thoroughly professional performance, one that features Buckley's undeniably well-honed pipes. But the essence of Dolly, the energy that drives her need to be everything to everyone she meets, just isn't there.