After a historically sad and troubling week for Americans aware of the tragic events in Florida, the abundant joy that is now being offered by the Stage Right Players production of HELLO DOLLY at Conroe’s gorgeous Crighton Theatre, could not have come at a better time. It was a half-century ago when I first saw the show’s hit 1967 Broadway revival with its all-black cast, memorably headlined by Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway. Now, all these years later, the show is once again lighting up the stage in the capable hands of director, Manny Cafeo and his exuberant cast, led by company co-founder and gifted comedienne, Carolyn Corsano Wong, in the lead role of Dolly Gallagher Levi, the devilish and conniving matchmaker inspired by Thornton Wilder’s 1955 play, The Matchmaker.
With its wittily amusing book by Michael Stewart, and the endlessly charming Music & Lyrics of Jerry Herman, this musical is a winner right out of the gate, as the lushly costumed cast (designer, Debbie Preisler) emerges onstage, even accompanied by a clever, horse-drawn carriage, though the horse amusingly appeared to have four human legs.
Capping that opening scene is the gorgeously dressed widow, Dolly, in her floor-length dress with alternating vertical panels of wine-red satin and velvet, topped by a deliciously outlandish feathered chapeau.
Ms. Wong’s comedic genius is quickly apparent with every eye-roll and facial twitch, as Dolly briskly advises everyone that she can not only find marriage partners for those in need, but she can provide individual business cards for her countless other services, such as piercing ears and removing varicose veins. With a smooth, robust voice, Wong takes immediate command of the stage with her opening number, “I Put My Hand In,” as Dolly explains how she loves to “meddle” in other people’s business.
We are quickly transported to the folksy set (designer, Deanie Harmon Boy), depicting the Country Feed Store of wealthy Yonkers “half-millionaire,” Horace Vandergelder (talented Michael Martin, who at times reminds one of actor, James Cagney). While Horace plans to retain Dolly to find him a bride, Mr. Martin delivers a breezy and pleasant, “It Takes a Woman,” with great back-up dancing from both the ensemble, and Vandergelder’s two bumbling clerks, Cornelius (Carlos Gonzalez) and Barnaby (Ryan Rodriquez). Horace has his eye on pretty Manhattan hat shop owner, Irene Molloy (Sara Priesler), but Dolly secretly hopes to become his wife herself. That goal adds much to the fun that follows, especially when Wong’s hilarious comic timing is on full display while glibly chatting with Horace, and ignoring or misinterpreting everything he says. (Think Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame.)
There is additional silliness from the endless whining and shrieks of desperation from Vandergelder’s niece, Ermengard (Elissa Lynch), as she very loudly protests the fact that Uncle Horace feels her struggling young artist beau, Ambrose (Cain Hamilton), is unsuitable as her future husband. With the exception of Cornelius and Barnaby, who must stay behind to mind the store, everyone prepares for a trip to New York City during the cheerful and beautifully staged show-stopper, “Put on your Sunday Clothes.”
The action then turns to the charming Hat Shop of Miss Molloy and her flighty and ever-giggling assistant, Minnie Fay (Hillary Moore), dressed in an amusing frock resembling a wedding cake. Meanwhile Barnaby and Cornelius have closed the Feed Store, deciding that they too, need a day of adventure in New York. When they turn up at the hat shop just before Vandergelder’s arrival, the stage is set for some uproarious slapstick. That is pleasantly accented by Miss Priesler’s elegant and soaring performance of, “Ribbons down My Back.” The “Motherhood March,” “Dancing,” and sensational “Before the Parade Passes By,” numbers that concluded Act One were large ensemble displays of both the polished dancing designed by choreographer, Dinah Mahlman, and the cast vocal skills perfected by Music Director, Ana Guirola-Ladd. And oh, what a talented cast of nearly four dozen actors too numerous to name here.
Speaking of dancing, Act Two has plenty of delights of its own as the action turns to the upscale Manhattan restaurant, Harmonia Gardens, where Barnaby and Cornelius, pretending to be wealthy gents, are unsure how they will afford dinner for their newfound dates, Minnie and Irene.
The foursome dance and sing the delightful, “Elegance,” with Priesler at times displaying her operatic skill, as the tall, slender and handsome Mr. Gonzalez beamed while showing hints of the Tommy Tune dance styles. Then come the dazzling dance acrobatics of “The Waiters’ Gallop,” that seemed to leave the audience as breathless as the talented dancers. Of course the title tune remains a highlight when the assembled waiters sing, “Hello Dolly” to greet our star as she splendidly descends the central staircase radiantly bedecked in feather-trimmed gown and plumed headdress. But there is so much more, including a turkey dinner too hilarious to describe, a spirited ensemble polka, and a restaurant brawl that lands everyone in court, where Mr. Gonzalez steals the show pleading the case before the Judge (Will Radcliffe) as he joins Miss Priesler for an “It Only Takes a Moment,” full of youthful longing, love and passion. I won’t be a spoiler to describe the joyful finale, but let me say it was a night when there was plenty of love bouncing across the footlights…in both directions!
HELLO DOLLY continues through Sunday February 25th at the historic Crighton Theatre, 234 N. Main St., Conroe, Texas. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, with Sunday’s matinee at 2 pm. For Tickets & information call 936-441-SHOW or visit www.Stage-Right.org.