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A single, plaintive male voice keens the opening number of Hello, Dolly! at Ford’s Theatre. “Call on Dolly,” he sighs, “she’s the one the spinsters recommend.”
If you know the show, his sweet, solitary vocals will surprise you. 1964’s Dolly is perhaps the most boisterous musical of a boisterous Broadway era, its opening normally one of those bright, stage-filling, belligerently cheery chorus numbers with which directors tell audiences they’re in for a good time.
This wistful solo promises something else—memories of a bygone Yonkers perhaps, in an evening suffused with warmth and just a touch of melancholy. As you’re registering that unorthodox thought, you’ll note the rich dark browns with which set designer Adam Koch has created the grand arch of a train station, and the wash of amber light Colin K. Bills is using to burnish the soft lavenders, olives, and burnt oranges of Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes. The stage is very nearly a sepia-tone photograph come to life.
Director Eric Schaeffer’s program notes indicate he’s intent on reinventing Dolly, much as he reconceived Sweeney Todd and Passion in his emotionally resonant chamber mountings for Signature Theatre (which is co-producing Dolly with Ford’s), freeing it from the primary colors and cartoon-like settings Oliver Smith created for the original Broadway production, finding the human, character-based story within.
This opening number amounts to a striking, if not entirely persuasive, declaration of that intent. The lyrics of the song simply repeat several times, so having them sung, however sensitively, by a single voice just emphasizes the repetition. And when Nancy Opel’s pert, pleasantly down-to-earth Dolly makes her entrance in the middle of it, the effect is slightly deflating—a star vehicle denied the oomph of a star entrance.
Still, the evening, based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, remains sturdily tuneful (I’ve still got “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” rattling around my head as I write this) even if it does not lend itself to easy downsizing. Besides stripping away the staircase that has long seemed as central to Dolly as falling chandeliers and rising truck tires are to Lloyd Webber musicals, Schaeffer had to make do here with a cast of 16 in a show with 10 speaking parts. His principals are all amusing and full-voiced, but that leaves choreographer Karma Camp a teeming, stage-filling chorus of just six with which to create the surrounding bustle of New York, and the all-male chorus welcoming Dolly back where she belongs to the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant is a platoon of four, count ’em, four, prancing waiters—barely enough to handle a Tuesday night crowd at T.G.I. Friday’s. That she’s still glowing, she’s still crowing, she’s still going at all, qualifies as quite an accomplishment under the circumstances.