When "Hello, Dolly!" opened in January of 1964 it was a mere musical. The current revival is a lovefest.
Nearly 32 years later, the show and its star are objects of veneration. Carol Channing, after all, is the last of the musical comedy divas. The show itself is a reminder of the kind of musical fresh, innocent, exuberant we no longer are able to produce.
(It opened a month before the Beatles' first American tour, a time when Vietnam still seemed peripheral.)
The show, based on Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker," a farce about Dolly Gallagher Levi, a meddling woman who awakens everyone she meets to the need for life to be an adventure, was originally a nostalgic look at turn-of-the-century New York.
It now represents a yearning for a more recent time that seems, at least in retrospect, simpler and more optimistic.
The yearning expresses itself in a series of ovations for Channing - her first entrance, her singing of the title song and finally her appearance in the curtain call in a white outfit with an outrageous plumed hat that makes her seem poised for flight.
The ovations, of course, represent huge affection for a character almost as interesting as Dolly Levi, which is to say, Channing herself. Those huge googly eyes, the exaggerated way of speaking and the intensity with which she invests the silliest gesture are trademarks of both characters. Both are equally beloved.
Her voice seems lower and more fragile, but there is a compensation. Her interpretation of the role seems deeper.
In the past, whenever she addressed her dead husband, Ephrem Levi, the tone might be diffident, but you always had the feeling she ruled the Levi roost. This time she seems genuinely pleading, and these scenes have a new poignancy.
(Channing's return will doubtless rejuvenate a local cottage industry, drag queens who specialize in impersonating her. The standard imitation is no longer viable, and the next few months should see a sharp upturn in this highly competitive market.)
Apart from Channing's historic presence, the best things about the revival are Florence Lacey and Michael DeVries, who sing the score's lilting ballads hauntingly.
Jay Garner is a dapper Horace Vandergelder, but most of the comic characters are woefully overdone.
The show has always had certain weaknesses. "Motherhood," the musical background for an exaggerated farcical scene, can only work if the comedy is extremely sharp, and here it isn't. The musical has been on the road for almost a year and a half, and the pacing often shows it.
But Jerry Herman's score remains infectious, and Channing's return lets New Yorkers express their gratitude for a life almost maniacally devoted to the stage.
It's good to have her back where she belongs.
Not since Joseph Jefferson, who played "Rip Van Winkle" for most of the second half of the 19th century, has any American performer been so long identified with a single role as Carol Channing with Dolly Levi, nee Gallagher, in "Hello, Dolly!"
Ms. Channing first played the formidable matchmaker in the show's premiere Broadway engagement starting in January 1964. With occasional time off for other theater work, several movies, some television specials and nightclub appearances, she has been playing Dolly ever since. In this country, abroad, and maybe on a nearby planet or two.
For this reason, it's not exactly a surprise that she has turned up on the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, the scene of her 1978 revival, to have yet another go at the part in a new production set to tour the world from Japan to Australia and maybe Lapland.
The only surprise was my surprise when I saw a preview performance. There I sat with some embarrassment as if chemically stimulated: helpless with pleasure and turned into a goon, wearing a dopey, ear-to-ear grin from the moment of her entrance through her pricelessly delivered remarks at the curtain call. At that point, I was even ready to swear that she had written every one of those seemingly impromptu lines herself.
World, beware: it's possible this woman is a substance that should be legally controlled.
Though I hadn't seen Ms. Channing since the first "Dolly" production, I have over the years (always in the line of duty) been forced to watch at least two of her replacements (Betty Grable and Ginger Rogers) and Barbra Streisand, who starred in the screen adaptation, one of the iciest musicals ever made by Hollywood.
Ms. Channing and the show, which officially opened last night, are the real thing.
Lee Roy Reams has directed and staged the production with fidelity to the work of Gower Champion, the director and choreographer of the 1964 "Dolly." There's also a new cast of first-rate, energetic, singing and dancing actors in support. Chief among them: Jay Garner, who plays Horace Vandergelder, the cranky Yonkers merchant who has engaged Dolly to find him a wife, though she covets him for herself; Michael DeVries as Cornelius Hackl, Vandergelder's underpaid, aging (33-year-old) ever-optimistic clerk; Cory English as Barnaby Tucker, Cornelius's pint-sized protege; Florence Lacey as Irene Molloy, the pretty young, widowed milliner Horace thinks he's going to marry, and Lori Ann Mahl, as Irene's assistant.
The sets are based on Oliver Smith's work for the Champion production. They evoke not only turn-of-the century New York and Yonkers, but also Smith's particular gifts, including the airy lightness that distinguished so much of his work from the beginning of his career (the 1942 set for Agnes de Mille's ballet "Rodeo").
If this production looks to be somewhat smaller than the original, that could be a fact or one of memory's tricks. Certainly the stage-center stairway of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, down which Dolly makes her grand Act II entrance to be serenaded by (and to sing) the title song, seems alarmingly narrow and steep. Yet this production is a far cry from the most recent touring version of "My Fair Lady," which looked as if it could be packed into several suitcases in less time than it takes to eat a hamburger.
Much of the pleasure in the new "Dolly" comes in the rediscovery of the show itself, which in memory had turned into a one-hit-song musical. Not at all. Jerry Herman's music and lyrics are packed with melody and wit: "Before the Parade Passes By," the big first act finale; "Ribbons Down My Back," which Ms. Lacey sings like a dream, and the love song "It Only Takes a Moment," sung by Ms. Lacey and Mr. DeVries, who also has a fine, true voice.
Michael Stewart's book, based on Thornton Wilder's "Matchmaker," is actually funnier than I remember it. The beautifully timed, near-lethal farcical confrontations, the first in the milliner's shop and the second at the fancy Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, are joyous. The throwaway lines, most of them Dolly's, are to split sides as delivered by Ms. Channing, who goes through the show as serene and almost as disembodied as a Cheshire Cat with a sense of mission.
I've no idea what her secret is, though I've admired her in both of the hit shows that are the principal substance of her long career (the other being "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," which preceded "Dolly"). She's not immortal. Time has taken some physical toll. At age 74, she's runway-model skinny in the manner of Nancy Reagan. She doesn't move with her former abandon, though the comic authority is more remarkable than ever.
Catch how she wrings laughter out of only two huskily articulated words: "I meddle." Be swept away with sudden feeling when she addresses her dead husband, Ephraim Levi, who apparently can be reached in some myopic middle distance between the orchestra and the loges. When, with her eyes alight, she asks him for some sign to indicate that he approves of her designs on Horace, there is sweetness but also an implicit threat. You can believe this woman has access anywhere.
Jonathan Bixby's costumes become her, though her wig, which looks lacquered, does not. It's of a reddish tint so pale and wan that on a lesser actress, it would be a statement of self-doubt. Don't worry that the singing voice now has more wobbles than Bert Lahr's as the Cowardly Lion. The Channing voice is an instrument, as eccentric as a theremin and as valuable as a Stradivarius. Her phrasing, enunciation and timing, her delicious intelligence and her commitment to the performance must still ravish audiences.
Unlike some other actresses of a certain age and unmistakable clout, Ms. Channing remains utterly, almost naively feminine even as she's rearranging the universe. Celebrate her.
Carol Channing rode back into town Oct. 19 on that most reliable vehicle, "Hello, Dolly!," the 1964 powerhouse that transformed her overnight from mere star -- which she had become 15 years earlier with "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"-- to Broadway legend. Channing has played other roles in a long and varied career, but it's Dolly Gallagher Levi, meddler nonpareil, that the fans want to see, and she reputedly has obliged them some 4,500 times. It would be churlish to suggest that she has been rewarded with any fewer than 4,500 standing ovations in return for her efforts.
Channing certainly is winning them over again at the Lunt-Fontanne, where Dolly's Act 2 entrance down the staircase into the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant is a razzle-dazzle throwback to a Broadway that no longer exists. Norma Desmond's descent down a much fancier staircase two blocks and several million dollars away doesn't pack half the emotional wallop.
"Dolly" will click here, partly because it's already made more money on the road than Rockefeller, and partly because discount tickets will make it easy for plenty of youngsters and tourists to see theater royalty up close.
How much its success has to do with Channing, who at 74 is still up there giving her all for the crowd, and how much of it has to do with the way she puts over a handful of songs that are as familiar as breathing, I can't say. I arrived at a critics' preview a "Dolly!" virgin, having avoided the original show, the revivals and the 1969 movie (whose star, "Funny Girl" Barbra Streisand , Channing had edged out for the '64 Tony Award). The closest I'd ever come before to "Hello, Dolly!" was Tom Stoppard's delightful adaptation of the same material for his play "On the Razzle."
"Dolly," according to Hobe Morrison's Variety review of the original, was adapted by book writer Michael Stewart from Thornton Wilder's 1955 "The Matchmaker," a reworking of his 1938 flop, "The Merchant of Yonkers." (Wilder's take, during the first two years of the "Hello, Dolly!" run, was over $ 207,000 -- 17 times the rest of his earnings.) All of the versions, including the Stoppard, put new spins on Viennese Johann Nestroy's 1842 "Einen Jux Will er Sich Machen" ("He Will Be the Devil of a Fellow"), which was itself an adaptation of John Oxenford's "A Day Well Spent," presented in London in 1835.
The current "Dolly!" only looks like it's been touring since it debuted in 1835. Lee Roy Reams' mechanical, pedestrian staging and choreography are no homage to Gower Champion, whose work on the original garnered nearly as much acclaim as Channing's. The Oliver Smith touring sets are skimpy, to say the least, and ill-fitted to the Lunt-Fontanne stage. Jonathan Bixby's costumes are meant to be comic odes to period dress, but they're hideous instead, a mishmash of styles and colors that all offend the eye. Blame Peter Fitzgerald's headache-inducing sound design for making a 24-piece orchestra seem as though filtered through a 1964 transistor radio.
Nevertheless, Channing has an endearing foil in Jay Garner's jowly, blustery Horace Vandergelder, the Yonkers "half-millionaire" Dolly has set her sights on. Some of the other casting is good as well, particularly Florence Lacey as the hat maker Irene Molloy, whose "Ribbons Down My Back" is unexpectedly moving, and Michael DeVries as Vandergelder's put-upon lieutenant, Cornelius Hackl.
As for Channing herself, she embraces the audience and the audience embraces right back. She is slighter, her voice even huskier, than one expected, but she is also adorable, in an extraterrestrial sort of way.
In his program bio, Jerry Herman says he "believes in writing melodic songs that have lives of their own outside the show," and that certainly seems to have been true of "Dolly!"-- though not necessarily in the way Herman implies: While he gets sole credit for the score, Herman paid a $ 275,000 settlement to Mack David, author of a 1948 pop hit, "Sunflower," which bore more than a passing resemblance to the title song, according to historian Steven Suskin.
The show also benefited from the input of Bob Merrill, who wrote the lyrics (which Herman revised) to "Motherhood" and "Elegance," and from the team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who wrote the Act 1 closer, "Before the Parade Passes By," which Herman rewrote, retaining the title. And among the themes from "Dolly!" later recycled to better effect, the one that stands out most is "It Takes a Woman," which would resurface two years later in "Mame's""We Need a Little Christmas."
"Reasonably melodic tunes and agreeably uncomplicated lyrics" was how Hobe Morrison described them in these pages nearly 32 years ago, and even that was being generous. "Hello, Dolly!" the show was never as special as "Hello, Dolly!" the vehicle. When all those waiters welcome Dolly home to the Harmonia Gardens, even a virgin experiences a comforting thrill at the sight of Channing, a gash of scarlet with feathers. It's so nice to have you back where you belong.