Readers of this column are probably well aware of my respect and affection for Houston’s Masquerade Theatre. And as has so often been the case with the company’s past shows, Wednesday’s Opening Night for “Hello Dolly” had plenty of happy audience members. For much of the time I shared that enthusiasm, but there were a few things that puzzled me in this production directed by Masquerade founder, Phillip K. Duggins. I have a special affinity for the music and lyrics of the show’s composer, Jerry Herman (Book by Michael Stewart). The original Broadway production was directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, and earlier this year I enjoyed the newly published biography of Mr. Champion, aptly titled, “Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical.” I even had the pleasure of meeting Champion’s longtime wife and dancing partner, Marge Champion, at a Lambs Club luncheon in New York honoring the book’s author, John Anthony Gilvey. So I was ready for a good time at this opening, and part of time I got my wish.
The enjoyment began with a delightful Overture from the solid 10-piece Masquerade orchestra which, throughout the evening, enhanced without overwhelming the performances. Pleasant painted backdrops (Scenic Designer, David Higginbotham) would establish the turn-of-the-century flavors of old New York. Stephanie Bradow, our rich-voiced star as Dolly the matchmaker, arrives to lead the cheerful “I Put My Hand In,” as she reveals the endless kinds of matches she can make. Her outlandish hat is not to be missed and looks as though an ostrich, a pheasant and a pair of ladies nylons each made contributions. (Bradow, incidentally, designed the many lavish hats for this production). Next we meet the cantankerous owner of the Yonkers feed store, Horace Vandergelder (John Gremillion). Close at hand is his ever-whining daughter, Ermengarde (Laura Gray) who hopes to marry Ambrose (Brad Scarborough) in spite of her father’s wishes. Then we have the idiotic feed store workers, Cornelius (Luther Chakurian), and giggling Barnaby (Braden Hunt). Their bumbling antics become wearing at times when the slapstick is simply overdone. What should be funny, at times becomes ridiculous. But this is tempered by the absolutely wonderful and lusty singing from the chauvinistic gents in numbers like, “It Takes A Woman.” The fairly predictable choreography was pretty well done in that number, but on the whole, the evening’s dancing was less than inspired. Never before has one cast flapped their arms at their sides so many times in a single production (“Look ma, I’m Flying!”) But quality singing from the entire cast continues to rescue the show in songs like the robust “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” with Chakurian enthusiastically leading the colorfully costumed ensemble (designer, Beth Hempen) amid a sea of pretty parasols and whirling train cars.
We go on to meet milliners, Minnie Fay (Kristin Hanka) and Irene Molloy (Miss Hempen) at the hat shop. Hempen sings the lovely “Ribbons down My Back,” but seems compelled to introduce a good deal of physical “business” in a simple song that should be a gentle embrace for the audience. It was one more example of this cast working too hard when fine music and lyrics can do the work for you. As a further example, when Cornelius and Barnaby sneak into town to visit these ladies, there are plenty of shenanigans as they hide from arriving Mr. Vandergelder. Unfortunately the comedy is again too broadly played and too heavy-handed for this viewer. The audience was not rolling in the aisles either. Even the sweet “I’m Dancing” number was a bit bumpy at first, but Mr. Hunt brought it closer to the intended cute awkwardness, and the dancing was pleasant as the waltz reached its crescendo and the ensemble cast joined in under the mercurochrome lighting of designer, Russell Freeman. Then Bradow opens “Before the Parade Passes By” with soft, mellow tones that are soon soaring as the full cast of marchers join the singing of this well-staged close to Act One.
In pretty gowns of violet and emerald taffeta, Minnie and Mrs. Molly opened Act Two with the promising “We’ve Got Elegance,” but they looked like they were on “speed” as they proceeded to punctuate every beat of the music with unneeded gestures and wide grins. Would that they had internalized the elegance. Another Act Two disappointment was Mr. Freeman’s characterization of the Harmonia Gardens headwaiter, Rudolph, as a shrieking, goose-stepping Nazi. That was a really bad idea. As for his staff of waiters, their dancing about with trays and towels in hand was lacking in any creative excitement. Perhaps it is just as well that the program production notes did not list a choreographer.
But Dolly fans don’t despair! Bradow arrived in a glamorous burgundy taffeta ball gown and exotic feather headdress to deliver a show-stopping “Hello Dolly” number featuring pleasingly simple choreography with the waiters. She moved coyly and with a graceful spirit of infectious fun. The gents were stellar here, and could have matched any of the “guy groups” of the 1950’s for smooth vocal harmonies. This number was a joy! So also was the warm and appealing “It Only Takes a Moment” duet from Chakurian and Hempen. It only took that moment to verify my theory that “less is more.” That number had no razzle and no dazzle, but it got right to the heart of this critic and the audience. Bravo!
Dolly continues through Nov. 26th at the Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall. For tickets and information call 713-315-2525 or visit www.masqueradetheatre.com.
(The Courier 11.19.06)