The role of Dolly Gallagher Levi, the spirited matchmaker who makes herself a match, is most closely associated with Carol Channing, who made the character her property onstage seemingly continuously for multiple decades since originating it in 1964, and with Barbra Streisand, who starred in the 1969 film. I went into Rachel Rockwell's revival at Drury Lane thinking Karen Ziemba—a longtime Broadway hoofer who first charmed me nearly two decades ago in the Gershwin confection Crazy for You
and later earned a Tony Award for the dance musical Contact
—had the right spark and sass to fill those iconic shoes (and hats). Unfortunately, Ziemba's Dolly nearly lost me at "hello."
The trouble showed early in Ziemba's first number, "I Put My Hand In," when she appeared to flub one of Jerry Herman's lyrics; rather than covering it and moving on, she broke character to ask the conductor, "Should we go back?" (They did not.)
This is the kind of trip-up I wrestle with mentioning in a review, since (one hopes) audiences at subsequent performances won't have the same experience. But I bring it up for two reasons: (1) It was such a jarring moment that it colored the rest of the show for me, as I nervously wondered if Ziemba would drop another line, and (2) it's illustrative of the airy detachment with which she approaches Dolly overall.
Composer Herman and book writer Michael Stewart's work, adapted from Thornton Wilder's play The Matchmaker
, is pretty thin material, really; it needs a big-personalitied, hard-driving Dolly to steer it. (Other actresses who followed Channing in the original production included Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, Martha Raye and Phyllis Diller.)
But Ziemba's Dolly comes across not as a no-nonsense manipulator in the service of love, but as a genial, rather passive sort. It's a characterization that extends, unfortunately, through much of Rockwell's lackluster production.
In many ways, Hello, Dolly!
is essentially farce, with its slapstick attempts by Dolly and ingenues Irene Molloy (Emily Rohm) and Minnie Fay (Maggie Portman) to hide their future beaus, Cornelius Hackl (Jeff Diebold) and Barnaby Tucker (Lee Slobotkin), from the sight of Scroogelike shopkeeper Horace Vandergelder (David Lively). See also the curtained dining booths at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, which open and close to serve up gags that should be as quick as Laugh-In
's joke wall.
And yet Rockwell's production feels like a bouncy house that's only half inflated. Portman, outfitted like an 1890s Strawberry Shortcake as shop assistant Minnie Fay, temporarily infuses the show with the snap that's called for, and Rockwell as choreographer does nice work with the dance sequences, particularly the hyperathletic Harmonia waiters early in Act II. But then Ziemba's Dolly arrives for the strangely lethargic title number, and the energy drains from the stage.