By Bill Beard
The incomparable Carol Channing is the name most associated with the leading role of Dolly Levi in David Merrick’s 1965 Broadway hit, Hello, Dolly!, although the film version allowed Barbra Streisand to create her own inimitable version.
But my unforgettable vision of this larger-than-life character immediately brings another incomparable lady to mind, the unmatchable Pearl Bailey. When Merrick’s 1967 revival, with an all-black cast, became so successful on tour, with Ms. Bailey as Dolly and Cab Calloway as the rich Yonkers merchant, Horace Vandergelder, Merrick decided to move it to Broadway, where it played to sold-out houses. I was lucky enough to be living in New England in ’67 and saw Pearl Bailey’s Dolly at Boston’s famous Colonial Theatre. Fantastic!
There is a scene in which Dolly sits alone at the famous Harmonia Gardens restaurant. She is eating a whole roasted chicken (which she has insisted Horace order) piece by piece, while she waits for him to arrive. The original script didn’t include a monologue for Dolly, but somewhere along the line, perhaps at Pearl Bailey’s instigation, a sort of “confide in the audience” monologue was included, in which she reveals her plans to maneuver Horace into marriage.
Now, both Channing and Bailey were great at “taking a little leeway and ad-libbing just a bit here and there.” And in the Boston show I saw, Ms. Bailey, enjoying the chicken very much, decided to share her appreciation with the audience and in her personal, folksy manner, confided that she usually skipped her own pre-show evening meal and just waited to enjoy the delicious chicken on stage. “Why not enjoy it?” she explained to the audience, since the health department required producers to supply a fresh chicken for each performance. Then, she added, “Of course, that really annoys ‘David’ … because we all know how cheap he is about spending money!” The audience loved it. Reports claim that Merrick loved the bit, too, and asked her to leave it in every show.
With or without casual ad-libbing, the role of Dolly obviously requires an actress of tremendous talent. And the Fireside Theatre has certainly found one: Broadway’s marvelous Leslie Becker (Bonnie & Clyde, Anything Goes, Cinderella and more). Ms. Becker has said: “I’m so thrilled to bring this legendary character to life. Dolly Levi is so special. … I enjoy the challenge of taking on a role associated with a specific actress, and honoring the style of the piece while still bringing myself to it in a whole new way.”
And that is exactly what she does. She embodies the beautifully complex character of Dolly Levi from the original play, The Matchmaker (by Thornton Wilder), and gives it every bit as much as Channing, or Streisand or Bailey, but still makes it absolutely her own! She is vocally in complete command of the score, she moves with elegance and clever physicalization, and she has created an adorable character with strength and style and endearing charm.
Michael Hawes, with credits from all the major professional Chicago-land theaters, and as good as he has always been, had some difficulty bringing Horace Vandergelder to a balance with this Dolly.
The two “lovey dovey” couples were very much on target. Lanene Charters as Irene Malloy, Mathew Schwartz as Cornelius and Tommy Martinez as Barnaby, all three recently much appreciated in Fireside’s Legally Blonde, were marvelously matched; and with the clever creativity of the newly returned Andrea Dotto as Minnie Fay, the foursome were fearsome and great fun.
Once again, the directorial staff here is strong: Artistic Director Ed Flesch, Musical Director Mary Ehlinger and especially the always brilliant choreography of Kate Swan.
Actually, one doesn’t find all that many productions of Hello, Dolly! these days, and this one is honestly great fun. Please try to see it sometime soon. It’s well worth the time and ticket. It plays through Oct. 21. For tickets and information, phone 800-477-9505 or go to www.firesidetheatre.com.
From the Oct. 3-9, 2012, issue