Carol Channing. Barbra Streisand. Bette Middler. Few roles in musical theater—for men or women—have as storied of a legacy as the lead part in Hello Dolly! The classic musical is a nostalgic favorite that has lasted for decades, including in an acclaimed 2017 revival starring Middler and, later, Bernadette Peters. Now, the actress Paige Davis is joining the role’s legendary pedigree in a new production at Pioneer Theatre Company.
“I’ve wanted to bring Hello, Dolly! to our stage ever since I arrived in Salt Lake City over 10 years ago,” says Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company’s Artistic Director and the director and choreographer of this production.
On the off-chance you don’t already know the story, the musical comedy, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and a book by Michael Stewart, follows Dolly Levi (Davis), a widowed matchmaker returning to New York after a long absence. Dolly claims she’s trying to find a wife for the wealthy Horace Vandergelder (Kris Coleman), but it quickly becomes clear that she hopes to marry Horace herself. Meanwhile, Dolly plays matchmaker to Horace’s store clerks—Cornelius (Alexander Mendoza) and Barnaby (Michael J. Rios)—and two young single women—Irene (Kelly McCormick) and Minnie (Dori Waymer).
Davis will lead the production in her PTC debut. Davis is known for hosting the TLC reality show Trading Spaces, where neighbors would redecorate rooms in each other’s houses with the aid of interior designers. Along with other TV appearances, Davis is also known in Utah for her years as a spokesperson for RC Willey—you might remember her as the cheery face of the furniture store’s ubiquitous TV ads. She may still get recognized as the “RC Willey lady,” but Davis has long had an accomplished career as a theater actress. A trained dancer, Davis performed on stage before, during and after her time on Trading Spaces, including a run as Roxie Hart on Broadway in Chicago. Now, Davis will perform for Utah audiences for the first time. (Her husband, actor Patrick Page, has a long legacy in Utah theater as a director of development at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and a frequent performer at PTC.)
Davis has been a longtime fan of Hello Dolly!—she even performed her first professional role in a summer stock production of the musical. After she played the title role in Mame, another Herman musical, at North Shore Music Theater in Massachusetts, Page suggested that she could play the part of Dolly Levi. Davis was flattered—though she jokes that her initial reaction was, “how old do you think I am?” (For the record, Streisand was only 27 when the film version was released.) She could see the parallels between herself and the role. Davis, with a laugh, describes herself as a “meddler,” and after more than two years of COVID-19, she related to the story of a woman relearning to embrace life. After being cast in the role, Davis tried to cast aside the expectations set by past actresses and make the role her own. She describes her approach to the material as “ground up”—focusing on the script and music to build her own connection with the material.
Davis is the first to acknowledge that the musical, which premiered in 1964 and is set at the turn of the 20th century, has gender politics that modern audiences will find dated. Still, the project’s core optimism lives on—it’s no easy feat to remain an audience favorite decades after debuting. The score includes standards like the title song, “Before the Parade Passes By” and “It Only Takes a Moment.” Davis cites the song “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” as not only a highlight of the show but her favorite musical theater song of all time. “It’s impossible not to smile when you hear that song,” she says.
What does Davis hope audiences leave the production with? “The joy,” she says simply.
Hello Dolly! will be at Pioneer Theatre Company from May 13-28. Tickets and more information are available on PTC’s website.