by Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart
TNB Theatre School
If I were looking for a musical comedy to help a group of talented students grow in their understanding of stagecraft, musical theatre, drama, acting and the mechanics of plays, I think Hello, Dolly would be somewhere near the bottom of the list of shows I might consider. I'm not in that position -- which is probably fortunate -- and I don't know what went into the decision that the TNB Theatre School folks made, but nothing in the performance put on by an immensely talented group of young people in the Playhouse Tuesday night convinced me I'm wrong about that.
Almost everyone knows the basic outline of the show: Dolly Gallagher, recently widowed, is to arrange a marriage for the also-widowed "half-millionaire" Horace Vandergelder. But she's not so sure she's not in the market for a husband herself, and that Vandergelder himself might not fill the bill. Meanwhile (here comes the subplot) two of Vandergelder's oppressed employees escape to the city for a big time, while the boss is away to meet the bride Dolly's found for him. Complications, as they say, ensue; and all ends improbably but happily, with the employees paired off with appropriate city girls and Dolly and Horace happily at the altar.
There are a number of reasons the show doesn't seem a promising vehicle, but the main one is obvious: the show is built as a showcase for a well-preserved superstar diva, someone who can bring an audience to their feet with a shrug, someone who -- like Carol Channing (or Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, or Ethel Merman, all of whom have played the role at one point or another) -- can stop a show by singing "Happy Birthday to You" without actually bothering to hit any of the notes. Partly as a result of that focus on one character, the show offers only the slenderest hint of a plot, and almost nothing in the way of characters you can come to care much about. And probably not as a result of that focus, the show is a particularly clear example of the "one-hit wonder" shows, with one song you absolutely can't extinguish from your brain for days after the curtain comes down, and not another you can remember an hour later.
Given those challenges, the Theatre School folks give this a solid try. For one thing, they've got the resources of the Playhouse to draw on, and they capitalize on it. For example, their use of the fly gallery for changing sets is wonderful: the way simply dropping down some nicely stylized windows or doorways creates a Irene's milliner's shop, the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, etc., is quite elegant, as are some of the other props, and indeed the whole look of the set. The idea of having the band centre stage in the back, partially behind a painted proscenium arch with a lowerable "curtain" works well to remind us that this is, after all, just a show: we're not supposed to become involved with the characters. The band itself, under Michael Capon's direction from the keyboard, is solid and supportive throughout. The costumes are elaborate and attractive, in general. Chris Saad's lighting is, as always, subtle and effective.
But these are, after all, peripheral issues: the theatre school is about the magic of theatre -- which depends more on what you can do than what you can buy. And although there are some moments when that magic seems in the company's grasp, there are many others where it simply eludes them. Much of this has to do with the difficulties posed by the script. Even with strong voices and effective stage presence -- particularly admirable were Alicia Toner as Irene Molloy, the smitten milliner, and Taylor White as her confused but game innamorata, Cornelius Hackl -- there were many moments when the momentum simply broke down. Some had to do with imagining up what people were to do while others were carrying the action, some had to do with mechanical difficulties which hadn't quite been solved (props which appeared at the wrong place or time, awkward gaps at the end of scenes when everybody has somehow to get offstage), and much had to do with finding an appropriate style for the show. Some actors (Patrick Steeves, for instance, as Horace Vandergelder) opted for music-hall exaggeration; others tried for something more realistic.
Most important, though, was the problem posed by the show's structure. Unless that momentum carries us through, it's easy for it to become a series of "big numbers" with not much between them. What it requires to create that momentum is, above all, Dolly herself , and though this Dolly -- Elisabeth Lagerlöff -- has a fine voice, lots of stage presence, and a good sense of timing, it was, at least on opening night, short of the incandescent performance the show demands. Especially at the beginning, there was too much speed in her delivery to allow us to get the laughs, and many of the endearing, self-referential nuances -- the asides to her dead husband and the other charming mannerisms that can make an audience love the meddlesome Dolly in spite of themselves -- were simply lost. Like the other principals, Lagerlöff seemed more than comfortable with the songs -- though, also like them, it seemed to me there was more "warming" of extended notes than necessary, along with a focus on music rather than meaning.
There were some directorial lapses as well, which I was
surprised to find in a show directed by the immensely talented Leigh
Rivenbark. Here are some examples.
Frequently, chorus scenes seemed unimagined, mainly a matter of getting everybody on stage and in place. This was especially noticeable in the restaurant scene, the focus of the show's showstopper, the welcoming of Dolly back to the social life of New York. Though the focus shifted effectively and elegantly between the conversations and actions at various tables, the scene as a whole was less than convincing. It was never clear, for example, whether we were to take the dancing waitresses as actual waitresses or as a floor show (it was hard to know what to make of their miming writing out seven simultaneous bills). As the room cleared for the finale, there was an awkward moving of Dolly and Horace's table to the side so that they could remain at dinner, on stage.
Similarly, the parade down the aisle and through the house seemed
oddly empty: the musicians mimed playing instruments, the clowns didn't
clown, the baton twirler didn't twirl a baton. One would expect that
for this sort of show, the talents of the cast would be on display and
contribute to the sense of circus-style excitement.
hOne of the odder lapses occurred when at one point Dolly takes Horace's top hat and cane. Now we all know what happens in a musical like this when the star puts on a top hat and struts -- only in this case we knew she couldn't, because she had a set of pheasant feathers sticking grandly up off the back of her head. So, in the event, she waved the top hat next to her head and put it down.
There were some surprising technical failures, as well: I don't think I've heard the sound system at the Playhouse sound worse than it did on opening night. Clearly, the principal characters had to be miked (though I wondered why most of them had to look like lost call-center workers), but the miking was inconsistently muted in the chorus numbers, and often the levels bounced up and down as characters turned their heads or came too near one of the hanging mikes at the front of the stage. I was surprised to see misplaced and mistimed props, badly placed chairs for Dolly's promenade, and pretty loose choreography among the dancers at a number of points. And in the midst of all the elegant and appropriate costuming, I was astonished to see the two New York policemen, in a show so centrally focused on New York, appear in red Royal Canadian Mounted Police dress uniforms. All these minor issues lowered the temperature of a show whose power depends on coming to the boil almost immediately, and staying there right to the end.
In spite of all this, the show has enough moments of magic, or near-magic, to be well worth the price of admission; many of these young performers can look forward to many more -- and more well-deserved -- standing ovations, and it's wonderful to watch them trying their wings. I still wish they'd had a chance to stretch them with a different script.