Some Broadway shows are simply timeless.
Hello, Dolly!, the long-beloved tale of a savvy, meddling matchmaker and widow who orchestrates a love story of her own, first premiered on Broadway in 1964. It won 10 Tony Awards—then a record-breaking number. Five years later, it was adapted as a film starring Barbra Streisand as the singular Dolly Levi and Walter Matthau as her object of pursuit, the rich old grump and Yonkers, N.Y. personality Horace Vandergelder (one of the best names ever).
The production returned to the Broadway stage in April 2017 with the inimitable Bette Midler as Dolly, who was later temporarily replaced by the equally incomparable Bernadette Peters. It closed in August of 2018 and was followed by a national tour, which I had the pleasure of seeing in Atlanta, Ga. on opening night.
I was admittedly unfamiliar with Hello, Dolly! until Tuesday evening, despite it being more than five-decades-old at this point. But this iteration, starring Broadway vet Carolee Carmello (Funny Girl, Mamma Mia!), was a whimsical whirlwind that required zero prior knowledge and held my attention for the full two-and-a-half hours. Even the intermission felt like too long a respite.
After seeing this show a single time, I can already say Dolly is one of the most dynamic characters in the history of classic Broadway shows. She’s cunning yet warm, determined yet imperfect and extraordinarily intelligent yet perfectly able to play dumb. She’s also a widow, constantly seeking some affirmation from her dearly departed husband Ephraim Levi that the time is right for her to remarry. She has made a living out of playing cupid, matching spinster sisters with the perfect gentlemen and unruly young ladies with tame, rich men, in addition to many other talents. Throughout the show, she hands out business cards inscribed with the most specific of services, everything from dance lessons to law advice. As Dolly herself sings, “I have always been a woman who arranges things / For the pleasure and the profit it derives / I have always been a woman who arranges things / Like furniture and daffodils and lives.” In other words, she was Olivia Pope before Olivia Pope. Dolly has it handled, whatever “it” may be. Carmello plays out all of these characteristics with immense skill, grace and a smile all the while.
The action begins when Dolly decides to “arrange” her own life and “rejoin humanity,” as she says. When you look at it that way, Hello, Dolly! is a story about a woman who survived grief and rebuilt a life of joy for herself—all beautifully executed in the pre-intermission number, “Before The Parade Passes By,” a song that’s ultimately about living in the moment before it’s over. But Dolly! is also bursting with the old-time Broadway fanfare you’d expect from such a production: dancing chaps carrying trays of fine foods, parasols and parades, feathers and ribbons. The choreography was nearly perfect, a mix of delicate prancing and seamlessly-timed group numbers. This company clearly runs like a well-oiled machine.
Half the plot takes place in New York, as the two clerks who work in Vandergelder’s grain supply store decide to play hooky and find love in the big city. The other half takes place in the small city of Yonkers, where Dolly is dead-set on moving after she woos Vandergelder into taking her hand. Spoiler: He eventually does, thanks in no small part to Dolly’s clever reverse-psychology tactics (and probably all those times she showed her shins and sashayed across the stage). Everyone has a wonderfully appropriate late-nineteenth century name: Cornelius Hackl, Irene Molloy, Barnaby Tucker, Minnie Fay…the list goes on. But you’ll love these characters for more than what they’re called: Each gets swept up in Dolly’s grand scheme, and they’re actually all the better for it by the end of the show.
“Money” itself might as well be a main character in Dolly! Someone is always chasing it, losing it, gaining it or spending it on chocolate covered peanuts (unshelled—the expensive kind!). But lest we forget Ephraim and Horace Vandergelder’s shared piece of anti-capitalist wisdom: “Money is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.” Like so many Broadway classics, Hello, Dolly! may be campy on the surface, but it has so much heart and wisdom to share. The touring production does a fantastic job of driving home all the most important points—and never taking itself too seriously.