It may not be the fairest or cleverest of them all, but The Production Company's show is enjoyable entertainment
Can Melbourne really deal with two nostalgic paeans to the Golden Age of Musicals at once? We have Julie Andrews demonstrating the joys of an exact replica with Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady currently playing at the Regent, and now we get the Production Company staging a perfectly conventional, old-fashioned rendition of Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! at the Arts Centre just down the road. Perhaps it’s a reaction to uncertain, dangerous times; audiences tend to retreat into the unabashed feel-good when things beyond the footlights get rough.
Not that the Great Broadway Musical was ever a place to hide from reality. Rodgers and Hammerstein introduced dark, complex material into their smash hit shows, notably in Carousel and South Pacific. And even before that, Show Boat and Porgy and Bess were dealing with thorny issues like race relations, slavery and class. It wasn’t such a great leap to musicals about psychopathic barbers, presidential assassins and people dying of AIDS. Even Jerry Herman, whose 1984 Tony acceptance speech was widely interpreted as a rebuff to the kind of musical and intellectual complexity of Stephen Sondheim, was up there for La Cage Aux Folles, a musical about an out-and-proud gay couple that was socially way ahead of its time.
Hello Dolly isn’t complex and certainly wasn’t ahead of its time, even back in 1964 when it premiered. It’s an adaptation of a minor Thornton Wilder play, set in late 19th century New York, about meddlesome matchmaker Dolly Levi (played here by Marina Prior) and her plans to make her own match with a parsimonious businessman called Vandergelder (Grant Piro). There’s another couple, Cornelius (Glenn Hill) and Irene (Verity Hunt-Ballard), and then another couple that no one can be bothered caring about. Because, in both design and intent, Herman fashions his musical to be all about Dolly. Entrances, exits, musical arrangements, all perfectly managed to give the star the maximum room to dazzle and charm.
While Bette Midler is currently slaying ‘em in New York in the role, almost certain to take out the Tony for her performance, it turns out Prior is a pretty good home-grown substitute. She’s developed a lovely comic sensibility over the years – she was flat-out hilarious in MTC’s 2006 production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – and uses it disarmingly here. There is an incredibly casual, unforced charm to her Dolly, and her monologues to her dead husband are subtly moving. She’s never clutching or desperate in her attempts to make the audience like her, and the effect is that we like her all the more. She’s possibly too glamorous – her entrance for the title number in a stunning rose gold sequinned dress is a knockout – to be credible as a match for the gruff and dour businessman she has her sights on, but given Prior and Piro are married in real life, maybe it isn’t such a stretch. The two work off each other beautifully, and their unlikely pairing is made to seem positively star-crossed.
In the supporting roles, only Hill makes much of an impact. His Cornelius – with a gleaming set of teeth and a lovely tenor that he uses to great effect in the night’s best number, ‘It Only Takes a Moment’ – is a bumbling, delightful bag of nerves. Hunt-Ballard, who’s rarely anything but spectacular, seems strangely hesitant and uncomfortable as his love interest. The ensemble push the all-American cheese factor to its limits, and Kirsten King manages to fit some sharp choreography onto an unnecessarily tight stage. Despite the awkward positioning of the stairs and the band, Shaun Gurton’s set is effectively minimalist, and Isaac Lummis’s costumes are the most garishly colourful the Playhouse has seen since Victorian Opera’s 2013 production of Sunday in the Park with George.
Coincidentally, it was that musical that Herman was referring to in his Tony acceptance speech. The garishness of the costumes, the unrestrained gaudiness, was a disastrous fit for Sondheim but seems to suit Herman rather well. He prefers things to pop and fizz, rather than land and linger. That’s fine, and has its place in the canon of musical theatre; certainly, this production makes a strong case for reassuring entertainments. It doesn’t have the depth of talent or craftsmanship of My Fair Lady, and it has virtually none of the intellectual prowess of anything Sondheim has written, but it is funny and warm and charming. And every now and then, that’s enough.