By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
When it was announced that Ricky Graham would be in the director’s chair for Hello, Dolly! at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts several months ago, there was anticipation this could have been one of the best versions of the Jerry Herman classic to ever grace a New Orleans area stage.
The cast led by Ashley Smetherman Lemmler in the titular role of Dolly Gallagher Levi was already in the midst of rehearsals when Hurricane Ida came roaring into Louisiana at the end of August, taking out power and severely damaging the main stage at Rivertown.
Graham, along with co-artistic directors Gary Rucker and Kelly Fouchi, had already been dealing with issues revolving about the COVID crisis, so this was another unexpected pitfall and a pivot for the entire creative team. What to do?
Even though the City of Kenner effected repairs in record time, the company had to find a venue to mount Hello, Dolly! soon or risk upending the rehearsal and performance schedule for this and all future shows. An alternative 500-seat auditorium, the Solomon Theatre at nearby St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Metairie, was selected and the mammoth show opened this past weekend to enthusiastic audiences.
With Harry Mayronne as music director, the music tracks closely matched the singing styles of the cast members, beginning with Lemmler, who gave notice from her first song “I Put My Hand In” that she arranges “things…like furniture, daffodils and…lives.”
The brazen character of Dolly Levi was first imagined by Thornton Wilder as a minor character in his The Merchant of Yonkers. Dolly was fully fleshed out and became the central figure in his play The Matchmaker, which won a Tony Award for Ruth Gordon.
David Merrick, who produced The Matchmaker, adapted Wilder’s play into the Jerry Herman megahit musical in 1964 with huge numbers like the title song, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “Before the Parade Passes By.” It was Herman’s biggest hit and made later successes like Mame and La Cage au Folles possible.
Herman employed a musical device which was popular in that day of incorporating several reprises for each of these big numbers, a technique that is reserved these days for finales as in Newsies, Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia! That’s when the hit songs are briefly recounted and audience members are encouraged to rise and applaud loudly for stage calls. Predictably, the practice of these reprises grows tiresome after two or three times and borders on irksome. But these were the common practices of the day, so they can be forgiven.
Lemmler is full of charm as she carries off the Dolly Levi character with verve and confidence. She is a meddler and her scheme to ultimately become the next Mrs. Horace Vandergelder is the crux of the main plot. Joel Rainey plays the starchy and stingy Yonkers merchant, who more than meets his match with Dolly. Adapted from Wilder’s play, Michael Stewart’s book has little nuance. Somewhat improbably and almost instantly, Horace changes his perception of the woman who has a card to indicate her proficiency in every task, whether it be instructing dance or making grumpy old merchants fall in love with her.
The two sub-plots involve younger members of the cast. Bryce Slocumb portrays Vandergelder’s clerk Cornelius Hackl, while Liam Gillen is his sidekick Barnaby Tucker. In their boss’s absence, they close the store and head to New York to seek romance for just one day vowing not to return in “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” until “we kiss a girl.”
The two clerks attempt to hide from Vandergelder, who is on his way to meet Dolly outside Irene Malloy’s millinery shop. Malloy, played by the exquisite singer and actress Micah Richerand Desonier, is a real standout in the cast, who shines in her solo number “Ribbons Down My Back” and in ensemble with “Elegance” and “It Only Takes a Moment.” She is joined by comic actress Emily Bagwill as milliner’s assistant Minnie Fay.
Passing themselves off as eligible rich bachelors, Cornelius and Barnaby attempt to woo Irene and Minnie and the two couples become inseparable on their one-day tour of New York.
Slocumb has established himself as one of the area’s leading musical theater stars with recent turns in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (also at Rivertown) and She Loves Me at Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane. Gillen is surprisingly impressive as Tucker despite the fact he is still a high school student at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) and Benjamin Franklin High School.
The two shine in support of Joel Rainey in “It Takes a Woman,” but are a delight to see in “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and with the ladies in “Elegance” too.
The other sub-plot involves Vandergelder’s niece Ermengarde, played by Savannah Fouchi, and her would-be love Ambrose Kemper, played by Christian Hoffmeister. The two have been forbidden to see each other by Vandergelder and it is Dolly Levi who comes to their eventual rescue.
The ensemble of 21 players come on stage for all the big numbers adorned with spectacular costumes, especially for the principal players like Dolly and Irene. These rentals are supervised by Daniel Rigamer and the stitching and details add to the authenticity of the players.
Standouts in smaller roles are Mandy Zirkenbach as Ernestina Money and Kyle Daigrepont as the judge, although the nose he employs is almost offensively clown-like. Zirkenbach has an opportunity to show off her comic and dancing skills to the delight of audience members.
Originally choreographed on Broadway by Gower Champion, Chandler Converse serves as choreographer of this production and largely succeeds even with so many on such a small stage.
Set designer Cliff Price and scenic artist Spencer Peterman’s work was left behind at Rivertown’s backstage due to damages there from Hurricane Ida that prevented the doors to the scenery area from opening. In a fairly brilliant move, photos of the original drawings for the set were projected onto the stage giving the impression of what had been intended and an example of making lemons out of lemonade.
Lighting by Stephen Thurber was up to his usual standard of excellence even though he was essentially lighting a totally foreign performance space for the first time.
All in all, despite the challenges of having to turn a three-week run into a two-week run for fear of encroaching on rehearsals for their next production and dealing with the loss of sets, this Hello, Dolly! succeeded in many ways as being one of the best rendered in the area.
In many ways, the decisions director Ricky Graham and co-artistic directors Gary Rucker and Kelly Fouchi had to make after Hurricane Ida were as important to the integrity of the work as selecting the lead performers for this excellent cast and selecting the creative staff.
Likewise, in many ways, we should all be sorry to see this Dolly go away.
Hello, Dolly!, (2 hours and 15 minutes) presented by Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, will finish its two-week run at the Solomon Theatre of St. Martin’s Episcopal School, 225 Green Acres Road, this weekend. Evening performances will be Friday and Saturday night, Oct. 8-9 at 7:30 p.m. The final matinee will be seen on Sunday, Oct. 10, at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at rivertowntheaters.com or by dialing 504-461-9475.