'Hello, Dolly!' brings optimistic delight to Act II Playhouse

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 6/1/23

The effervescence of  "Hello, Dolly" is on display at Act II Playhouse.

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'Hello, Dolly!' brings optimistic delight to Act II Playhouse


The effervescence of  "Hello, Dolly" is on display at Act II Playhouse. The production inhabits the joyous optimism of one of Broadway's longest-running shows.

Of course, you need a stand-out actress to play Dolly. Director Stephen Casey finds one in Jennie Eisenhower, winner of multiple Barrymore awards and nominations. You cannot take your eyes off her. Dolly sizes up people like a good-willed predator, goading them into sharing in life's feast even as Dolly pursues her interests. 

Horace Vandergelder is the big meanie of the piece. Played to perfection by Scott Langdon, this "half-millionaire" owner of a feed store in Yonkers is the perfect foil.  Smugly middle class and miserly, Horace is looking for a wife. "Marriage is a bribe to make a housekeeper think she's a householder," he tells us. Then he runs into Dolly.

"Dolly," which premiered on Broadway in 1964, is based on Thornton Wilder's 1954 farce comedy, "The Matchmaker." Wilder is one of the few notable modern writers to extend an optimistic viewpoint. There is always a sun behind his dark clouds. Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning "By the Skin of Our Teeth," opening on Broadway in 1942,  became hugely popular in post-war Germany with its depiction of history as cycles of calamity and rescue.

Wilder was also an innovator, "breaking the 4th wall" long before it became a modern convention. While hoping to jar the audience into thoughtfulness, "The Matchmaker" still holds form as farce and Wilder's critical element is tame. Its reincarnation into a musical gets rid of its satirical bite altogether, turning the play into a joyous romp.

You know from the start those dark clouds do not stand a chance against Dolly, a rascally manipulator with a business card trick up her sleeve for every occasion. She resembles Mary Poppins, a supernatural force who creates authentic, life-affirming desire in everyone just by being herself.

Act II Playhouse has a history of transforming Broadway shows on its stage. Director Stephen Casey doubles as choreographer. A mysterious blue haze glows behind the rear wall glass doors and he uses just a few post-up props. Casey keeps the stage bare to give his 14 actors room to hoof.

Jerry Herman wrote music and lyrics. There are a few stand out numbers: "Before the Parade Passes By" (Dolly), "It Only Takes a Moment" (Cornelius and Irene), and its big hit, "Hello, Dolly" (Ensemble). Herman's lyrics are simply declarative of a character's single-minded desire. The comic acting and high-energy dancing of Casey's cast puts these numbers across.

The antics of Horace's impoverished clerks,  Cornelius (Zachary Chiero) and Barnaby Tucker (Lee Slobotkin) dominate Act 2. In their farcical courtship of Irene (Elyse Langley) and Minnie (Renee McFillin), they masquerade as wealthy men about town.

When not hiding from Horace under tables and inside linen closets at the swank Harmonia Gardens Restaurant they sing and dance up a storm, often with the help of Casey's ensemble players, (Taylor Hilt Mitchell, Vaughn Meccod, Angela LaRose and Cara Treacy).

"Dolly" is full of cameo riffs. Eleni Delopoulous is wealthy Ernestina, too delightfully happy with herself to be aware of her gaucherie. Dominick Sannelli is maitre'd Rudolph, leading ensemble players in dance numbers that thread the restaurant farce scene. Young lovers Ermangarde (Jessica Riloff) and Ambrose (Jeremy Konopa) are comical victims of Horace's parsimony.

There is a message of sorts. Dolly wants Horace's money so she can spread his wealth around. She is a “virtus in medio stat” (good practice lies in the middle path)  figure. Dolly says "The difference between a little money and no money at all is enormous…and the difference between a little money and an enormous amount of money is very slight."

More largely, the musical is about values and the conflict between the interest in money and the value of love and adventure that everyone feels, except for Horace. In the "Parade" song, Dolly says "I wanna feel my heart come alive again before the parade passes by."

"Hello, Dolly" does not pretend to be profound. Its optimism in suggesting that false values cannot endure is the byproduct of two hours of nonstop, joyous energy that does not allow for any other conclusion.

Act II Playhouse is located at 56 E.  Butler Ave., Ambler, Pa. "Hello, Dolly" will run through June 18. Tickets available at 215-654-0200 or online at act2.org.