Hello Dolly! is as starry of a star vehicle as you can get. Dolly’s name is right there in the title—exclamation point and all—and the musical’s most famous song involves a chorus of men singing about how much they love her for six minutes straight. The character of Dolly Levi is diva-bait, a chance for a spotlight-stealing actress to bask in adoration, both from the characters on stage and the audience.
In Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of Hello Dolly!, Paige Davis, playing the title role, succeeds at winning over the crowd. Somewhat paradoxically, though, it’s the ensemble that really stands out. Aided by an excellent orchestra led by music director Phil Reno, the talented cast of singers and dancers are dazzling, showing off their considerable performance chops while remaining focused on the story’s natural humor and quiet emotional resonance.
It’s the 1890s and the widowed Dolly Gallagher Levi returns to New York City after a long absence. She won’t stay long though—Dolly is headed to Yonkers to secure a wife for the “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (Kris Coleman). As a matchmaker, Dolly has a remarkable success rate, and she memorably explains that “some people paint, some sew, I meddle.” (Though, in a running gag throughout, Dolly has plenty of other oddly specific skills too.) Dolly reveals to the audience that this match is unlike any other—she has an elaborate plan to marry Horace herself. Meanwhile, Horace’s two overworked clerks Cornelius (Alexander Mendoza) and Barnaby (Michael J. Rios) sneak off to the city for their own adventure. They are soon smitten with the hat shop owner Irene (Kelly McCormick) and her employee Minnie (Dori Waymer), but with hardly any money and a boss somehow always lurking nearby, their courtship is a comedy of errors.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: this 1898-via-1964 musical has some elements that feel outdated. In particular, the gender politics in the songs by Jerry Herman and the book by Michael Sherman—adapted from the Thorton Wilder play The Merchant of Yonkers—are firmly stuck in the past. (Apparently Horace never learned how to do basic household chores in the years after his wife’s death.) This production, directed and choreographed by Karen Azenberg, makes some contemporary updates. The racially diverse cast is a welcome, necessary change (even the 2017 Broadway revival cast had all-white leads) and the parade that ends Act I includes protestors advocating for unionization and women’s rights. Still, Azenberg’s interpretation of Hello Dolly! is straightforward and classically minded. She proves that old-fashioned isn’t necessarily a pejorative, finding and embracing the musical’s core joy.
A key part of this joy are Herman’s timeless songs, which almost six decades later remain catchy, warmly funny and moving. So too is Stewart’s knack for pleasurable, expertly constructed farce—there’s an easy satisfaction in watching each piece of the plot fall perfectly into place. Even the musical’s most antiquated attitudes feel more forgivable in context. Songs like “It Takes a Woman” are obviously sexist on the surface, but the chorus of men looking for a traditional housewife are also buffoons, hardly worth taking seriously. When it comes to romance, Dolly is the one in control, whether she’s nurturing the sparks between Cornelius and Irene or expertly leading Horace to a proposal. This courtship may not be sentimental—Dolly’s desire to “rejoin the human race” is more about financial security than passionate romance. Despite, or maybe because of, this, there’s something modern and even strangely moving about Dolly’s quest for a second marriage. You never doubt that Dolly will construct her own happy ending through sheer force of will.
Azenberg has directed and choreographed many musicals at PTC, but this production is particularly suited to her strengths. Numbers like “The Waiters’ Gallop,” filled with highly choreographed slapstick, are elaborately staged and sharply executed, and she draws out effortless physical comedy from the cast. Mendoza is the cast’s standout vocalist and his “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” is a clear highlight, while Rios is equally adept at energetic dance solos or goofy comedy. The creative team does similarly strong work—set designer James Noone builds a romantic vision of turn-of-the-century New York, while Eduardo Sicangco goes perfectly over-the-top with Dolly’s costume for the title number.
The character of Dolly is both a goodhearted hero and a playfully mischievous schemer, and Davis is more of a natural fit in the former role than the latter. Her charming performance makes Dolly easy to root for, but at times she risks fading into the background. Still, if Davis’ fundamental sweetness presents a slight problem, it’s a good one to have. In this classically entertaining, good-natured production, comfort and charm win the day.