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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Hello, Dolly! __ Media Theatre

HelloDollyAndrea1I call it Liza Minnelli Syndrome. It occurs when you get an immediately warm and receptive reaction the minute a performer appears on stage. I have it with Rosemary Harris, Chita Rivera, Barbara Cook, and the late Eartha Kitt as well.

And with Andrea McArdle.

Andrea McArdle has a genuineness, and an ingenuousness, that is amazing for someone who hung out with Frank Sinatra when she was 13 and worked with major talents most people of her generation don’t have the luxurious benefit of remembering.

To many, Andrea will always be the original Annie. Millions of girls have sung along with her during the almost 40 years since “Annie” debuted on Broadway and put Andrea on the theatrical map.

She’s remained on that map because her clarion voice is so recognizable and so true, because she has excellent stage poise, and because of Liza Minnelli Syndrome.

Now, at age 51, Andrea remains someone you fall in love with on sight.

How wonderful then to report that of all the shows I’ve seen Andrea do, including a dozen or so nightclub turns, she is the best and most commanding in Dann Dunn’s jaunty, jolly, joyous production of Jerry Herman’s “Hello, Dolly!” at Media Theatre!

Often, McArdle is an actress who uses her native gift to entertain and winning personality to create a character. Line readings are crisp and clear. Songs are well-done and expressive. Movement is graceful and perpetually youthful. From the age of 13 on, this performer is a master at stage presentation, and that’s why she works and is a headliner to this day.

Don’t misinterpret. I think Andrea creates characters intrinsically. She always adds spunk and professional luster to the play or musical and always conveys the essence and purpose of her character.

In Dunn’s “Hello, Dolly!” she goes further. In talking to Andrea during rehearsals for “Dolly!,” she said she saw a lot of herself in Dolly Gallagher Levi. Not only because of  the Irish roots, the ease around people, and a knack for enjoying parties, but in a predilection for arranging things and for being middle-aged and navigating life after on her own after a long marriage. McArdle says like Dolly, she has had, in an important aspect of her life, to start over and explore territory that had long been uncharted or just plain insignificant.

These ideas and emotions inform her Dolly. The perceptive insights McArdle gleaned from her personal life translate to maturity and dimension on the stage. Her soliloquies, in which Dolly describes her hand-to-mouth existence, her working so hard to scratch out a living, her weariness at having to expend so much effort, even when enjoyable, and most of all, her need to have a sign from her late husband, Ephraim Levi, that he releases her to marry again, are even more clear and straightforward than McArdle’s line reading usually are. They’re also more heartfelt. There’s a longing and a purpose behind them. There’s a catch and a quiet sense of needing something important in McArdle’s voice as Dolly makes her pleas to Ephraim and explains the personal philosophy experience has taught her.

The same sincerity and underlying purpose ring true as McArdle’s Dolly goes about helping young people obtain what they want, whether it be a forbidden romance, one day off a week so a 33-year-old can do something about his virginity, or going beyond kissing a girl to find lasting romance. The actress doesn’t seem to playing a role. She seems deeply interested in other characters’ dilemmas and uses Dolly’s cool far-sightedness and warm regard for people being happy to see that every heart, including her own is contented. McArdle was darling as Belle, touching as Eponine, game as Annie Oakley, funny as Sonia Walsk, and smart as Mame. Her Dolly eclipses them all.

More of Thornton Wilder’s intentions from his play, “The Matchmaker,” recently given a first-class production by Temple Theaters, shine through in Dunn’s production for Media, and Andrea McArdle is the one who brings them most to light.

“Hello, Dolly!” is about a lot more than a clever woman scheming to snag herself a rich husband and escape the near-poverty that keeps her from enjoying the world at her own pace or to her own celebratory extent. It’s about how easy it could be for everyone to be content if people did not have prejudice, political correctness, or assumed authority interfering with their lives and cowing them into conformity or submission.

Played with some texture, as the Media cast provides, especially Elisa Matthews as Irene Molloy, Kelly Briggs as Horace Vandergelder, and McArdle, “Hello, Dolly!” promotes Wilder’s worldly and human philosophy that there is enough joy and as much wealth to satisfy everyone if we’d just seek it, revel in it, and spread it around.

From reading and doing both “The Matchmaker” (as Cornelius) and “Hello, Dolly!” (as Barnaby), I’ve always been stricken, and influenced by two key lines, one that says, “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure; it’s no good unless you spread it around,” and another, more prime and more important, “The difference between a little bit of money and a lot of money is not very great. The difference between a little bit of money and no money at all is the world.”

Something about the Media production, and McArdle’s performance, tell me these lines were in Dunn’s or McArdle’s mind as their show developed.

There’s depth to Dunn’s “Dolly!,” but most of all there’s surehanded, non-stop entertainment. This is fast-moving, energetic production in which Dunn has a breakthrough as a director and choreographer

NealBoxHis work on “Spamalot” and “The Addams Family” show that Dunn works well with the complex production number and presentational performances. In “Hello, Dolly!,” he is more ensemble oriented. McArdle, Matthews, Briggs, and Patrick Ludt as Cornelius bring sequences beyond the surface like Scott Langdon, Jennie Eisenhower, and Jeff Coon did in Dunn’s earlier shows, but “Dolly!” doesn’t depend so much on bravura turns lighting the stage. The entire production flows. There are no low-level or throwaway scenes. “Dolly!” holds its interest and pace no matter whom is on stage or who has focus.

As a choreographer, Dunn has provided lively, engaging work, but like many in regional theater, he often has to suit dance numbers the limited terpsichorial abilities of his cast. Energetic as many dances became, they bordered on the aerobic and calisthenic. The dances in “Dolly!” seems to have more of a design, more of a pattern. The arms pointed diagonally in “Call on Dolly” are stylish and give Dunn’s dance more panache. Having hoofers like Adam Hoyak and J.P. Dunphy in the chorus can’t hurt, and they, in particular, have a polish and a flair that goes way past just being athletic. Cameron Scot Slusser adds to the dash and versatility with his one-legged turns (revoltades) as Barnaby, Ludt and Slusser click heels and execute other debonair moves, and one lad — I’m not sure whether it’s Nathan Nolen Edwards or Richie Sklar — takes to the air doing splits and other gymnastic maneuvers while leaping several feet off the stage. (Whatever you do, kid, keep breathing!) Of course, there’s the waiters’ gallop, conceived and developed by original “Dolly!” director-choreographer, Gower Champion, and employed by every “Dolly!” stager since. Dunn’s red-jacketed troupe looks pretty smart parading as the Harmonia Gardens’s lightning quick staff in the famous title number.

“Hello, Dolly!” is classic American gingerbread with a big dollop of wisdom attached to it.

Temple recently showed how durable, funny, and sensible Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” is. Media shows us the same traits apply to its grand musical version, “Hello, Dolly!”

The Vandergelder home and shop in Yonkers, New York is a mess. Horace Vandergelder may a well-known half-millionaire, but the autocracy with which he runs his household and hay, grain, and feed store is coming back to haunt him. His irritating whiny niece, Ermengarde, want to marry an artist, Ambrose Kemper, against Horace’s will. His chief clerk, Cornelius Hackl, is tired of living only to work. He wants experiences, even extreme ones like being arrested and kissing a girl. Barnaby, younger, less dissatisfied, and less rebellious, agrees to go along on an adventure with Cornelius once he hears about a stuffed whale at Barnum’s Museum in Manhattan. The clerks plot to necessitate Horace’s store closing for the day he leaves them in charge to go to New York City to secure Ermengarde in a place Ambrose can’t find her, meet Dolly, and propose to a milliner, Irene Molloy, armed with a box of chocolate covered peanuts — unshelled.

Wilder’s point, adopted fully by “Dolly!” composer Jerry Herman and librettist Michael Stewart, is to show how one day, especially a day in which someone is willing to show courage, risk danger, invited adventure, and throw propriety, convention, and caution to the wind, can change a life. The characters in “Hello, Dolly!” may originally angle for memories, but what they find alters their individual and collective existences.

Dunn’s production hits pace and stride right away with New York denizens bouncing busily across the stage while a women holding a newspaper reveals herself to be Andrea McArdle playing Dolly Levi.

Dolly cannot help but be vigorously efficient, and McArdle quickly gets down to work giving out calling cards that indicate Dolly is a master of any situation from cutting corns to teaching dancing and getting the unmarriageable wed. She sings “I Put My Hand In,” a number than involves manipulating one person’s shoulder and another person’s lower regions to create compatibility between a six-foot woman and five-foot man as well applying makeup to turn a frump to a trump lady fair.

Color, props, creativity, and sprite movements propel Dunn’s “Dolly!” into full gear that keeps its intensity when action moves to the parlor and front of Vandergelder’s Yonkers home and store. Kelly Briggs falls right into McArdle’s pace as he fusses as Ermengarde, orders Cornelius and Barnaby about, and sings about why he want to marry in “It Takes a Woman.”

Briggs, like McArdle, can convey a lot of personality while keeping his character on a human scale. He plays Vandergelder broadly but never becomes cartoonish or someone you don’t believe is real and exists on Earth. There is more bluster and comic foibles in Briggs’s portrayal than there was in Robert Jason Jackson’s commandingly authoritarian Vandergelder at Temple.

Briggs relates well to the people around Vandergelder. He is justifiably exhausted by Ermengarde’s tears, Ambrose’s impudence, and Cornelius and Barnaby’s incompetence. He declares most people on Earth are fools, and the rest of us are in danger of contagion.

In Briggs’s performance, he believes it too. The actor walks a fine but assured line between farce and standard comedy, and the choice works for him. You realize the sides of Vandergelder that make him a bit of a buffoon, but you also see what makes him successful in business and a leader of Yonkers.

HelloDollyGuysHoraceVandergelder can get apoplectic, but that’s Dolly comes in. She’s been hired to find his a wife who will regulate his home and give him companionship in Yonkers. Briggs and McArdle have an immediate rapport while making sure we see Vandergelder’s attitude that Dolly is an employee, and Dolly’s amused assessment that Horace is a man who must be managed. Dolly’s plan to marry Horace, even though she introduces him to eligible woman, is plain from the outset. In addition to asking Ephraim for a sign, she announces she’s going to do one of his rooms over in blue wallpaper.

Dunn’s production continually keeps us involved and is so watchable and efficient, we don’t ask questions about Wilder’s plot. We wait eagerly to see it unfold.

Within 15 minutes of any “Dolly!,” four major musical numbers take place. They are all humorous and enjoyable, ut things culminate, and come to a head, in “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” which Ludt sings with aplomb, with Slusser chiming in when appropriate, and McArdle leading the ensemble in a rousing third verse in which all on a train to Manhattan bid good-bye to Yonkers, the delinquent Cornelius and Barnaby among them.

Oddly, matters calm when we’re introduced to Irene Molloy and her assistant, Minnie Fay, in Irene’s hat shop on a quiet square in lower Manhattan. The business day is dawning, and Irene confesses to Minnie she hates hats and wishes her life was as wicked as society at large declares a milliner’s life must be.

Elisa Matthews is a coolly mature and candidly professional Irene, expertly arranging and decorating hats while Minnie rummages nervously around her.

Matthews, a magnificent singer who has the added virtue of acting adroitly and with sensitivity that leads to depth, makes Irene’s one solo, “Ribbons Down My Back” a sweet delight. She and Dunn cleverly have Irene slowly having a hat in the air so we can see the ribbons stirring up a rainbow. The song gives a brief melancholy, elegiac mood to Dunn’s generally snappy staging until Cornelius and Barnaby appear to turn Irene’s stillness into a farcical romp.

Once Stewart has all of the plot lines in motion, “Hello, Dolly!” takes off, featuring one big number to another from “Motherhood” to “Before the Parade Passes By,” a triumph for McArdle, and from the nimbly double-time “Waiters Gallop” to Cornelius’s single ballad, “It Only Takes a Moment.”

So many good moments await in the Media production, and these include small things like the subserviently squeaky voice Adam Hoyak chooses when he plays a court clerk and Barnaby constantly counting his and Cornelius’s money (always hoping to retain enough to see that stuffed whale).

As with any classic directors believe they can take for granted, “Hello, Dolly!” has its disparagers who says it’s corny and has no point.

Dann Dunn’s production happily and certainly puts the kibosh on that notion. This “Dolly!” soars as entertainment, and is given enough texture, especially from McArdle and Matthews, that you get involved in all the plot line, root for the lovers and young people to succeed, and admire the skill with which Dolly gets Horace to realize he has no choice but to marry her.

Media’s “Dolly!” affects your heart as much as your funny bone. Entertainment abounds, for sure, but you never forget you’re seeing one group of people on an adventure and one indomitable woman on a mission. Dunn and company set it up so you worry about Cornelius and Barnaby on occasion, delight in the way Irene enjoys her own gag as she calls Cornelius on a bluff and doesn’t worry about the repercussions, and want to see Dolly have the ease and independence she craves.

As often happens at the Media, the story is the priority. Luckily, it is told in a deliciously diverting manner than leaves room for the intimate within the big and splashy. Each actor aces his or her monologue that explains that individual’s point of view. The “Hello, Dolly!” number heralding Dolly’s return after a long absence to the Harmonia Gardens, has its typically dazzling effect as it builds and builds from Nicholas Saverine’s headwaiter nervously looking for Dolly’s arrival to McArdle and company filling an apron runway and kicking spiritedly and they fill the cavernous Media space with “Dolly’ll never go away again.”

“Before the Parade Goes By” also takes on a vibrant life of its own. Ludt, Slusser, Matthews, and Madalyn St. John as Minnie Fay shows their vaudevillian mettle in “Elegance.” Ludt sings beautifully and convincingly as Cornelius testifies, “It Only Takes a Moment.”

Ludt is a fine Cornelius who thinks on his feet and takes cues from Dolly and irene quickly. Ludt gives Cornelius the sweet innocence of someone who has only been on two floors of a Yonkers grain shop while adapting to Manhattan sophistication and conveying the maturity of someone who has lived 33 years, however inexperienced.

Cameron Scot Slusser, who is quite light on his feet and takes to Dolly’s dance lessons with a vengeance, is a sharp and funny Barnaby, honest enough to remind Cornelius of hard truths, such as “You don’t know any girls,” and precocious enough to enjoy his day in New York more and more as it proceeds.

You know Megan Rucidlo is doing a fine job as Ermengarde because, like Briggs’s Vandergelder, you want to stop her chronic blubbering and tell her to please shut up. Sam Nagel is an urbane and nicely nervy Ambrose, who will marry Ermengarde no matter what Vandergelder says. Adam Hoyak, who seems to be everywhere, is funny as a waiter who blends superciliousness with profound confusion. Hillary Parker has a darling cameo as a former neighbor of Dolly’s, Mrs. Rose.

Christopher Ertelt and the Media band set and keep the tone for Dunn’s non-stop production. Matthew Miller’s open set is often dressed festively and features a great hat shop for Irene. Katie Yamaguchi’s costumes are bright and catch the production’s comic spirit while looking natural for Victorian garb.

While I thoroughly enjoyed myself for “Hello, Dolly!’s” duration, I have a couple of cavils. In the “I Put My Hand In” number, successful as much of it is, McArdle needs to be a little more aggressive and get closer to ensemble members as she leans of their shoulder or introduces a boy with a timid tongue to a girl with a diffident air. “Motherhood” could use a little more variation. Right now, it follows to easy a pattern and relies too much in trading hiding places between a wardrobe and under a clothed table. I like it at Dunn borrowed Champion’s idea to have Cornelius and Barnaby match behind Vandergelder before retreating back to safety in “Motherhood.”

Cavils, shmavils. This is an ecstatic, star-spangled production that makes a chestnut like “Hello, Dolly!” as tasty as it can be.

‘Hello, Dolly!” runs through Sunday, May 24, at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, in Media, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. A 7:30 show is scheduled for Wednesday, May 20. No matinee is set for 2 p.m. Thursday, May 21.) Tickets are $42 with some available discounts and can be obtained by calling 610-891-0100 or by visiting www.mediatheatre.org.

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