Hello, Dolly! with the book by Michael Stewart, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, and based on the play The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder, it opened on Broadway in 1964 to rave reviews, eventually winning 10 Tony Awards and playing to sold-out audiences. With Carol Channing leaving the hit production three years later, history was made. The progressive and adventurous producer David Merrick sent an all-black touring cast of Hello, Dolly! across America. Although America was burning with racial unrest, this cast was burning up every box office.
At the helm of this hot ticket was the beloved actress and singer Pearl Bailey, accompanied by the debonair Cab Calloway. It didn't take long for Merrick to see the light and take this cast to Broadway. That proved a great decision as Bailey, Calloway and the all black cast turned a waning 3-year-old show into the hottest ticket in town. Bailey's nuanced Dolly made even the most analytical critics of the day see the show in a new and loving light.
In Fort Worth's Stolen Shakespeare Guild production of Hello, Dolly!, Irma P. Hall Black Theater Award winner Tiana Shuntae Alexander leads the cast as the meddlesome Dolly. Alexander's presence is infectious as she weaves in an out of the lives she matchmakes. It is easy to overplay Dolly as a caricature reminiscent of Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett. Yet, Alexander allowed the text to breathe, the jokes to land, the songs to soar, and fun to ensue. Alexander's love interest, Stan Graner (Horace Vandergelder), could easily pass as her grandfather, but with such great fun happening onstage, we suspend belief, or awkwardness, for the 2-hour and 30-minute performance.
The ensemble cast, under the direction of Jason and Lauran Morgan, was a joy to watch. I was exhausted just watching the tightly choreographed "Waiters Gallop," courtesy of Monica Glenn. A few standouts were David Helms as Barnaby Tucker and Keith J. Warren as Cornelius Hackl, Vandergelder underpaid and overworked bumbling clerks who go to the big city of New York looking for love. The duo's comic timing and swooning vocals made watching their journey both hilarious and heartwarming. Jessica Peterson's portrayal of Irene Molly, the local hat store owner, was another standout. Peterson's voice was gorgeous in the ballad "It Only Takes a Moment," and her playfully coy flirtation with Barnaby Tucker allowed the story to flow.
Jason's functional set design was simple but beautiful and efficiently guided us from the feed store to the hat store to the upper crust Harmonia Gardens restaurant. Lauren's colorful Victorian costume design allowed the audience to transport into the late 1800s. I was admittedly surprised to hear canned music for this show. There were times when levels were not balanced, and listening to the actor's lyrics on stage was a challenge.
The story of a meddlesome widow looking for love isn't a new one but Stolen Shakespeare Guild's Hello, Dolly! filled the tiny space of Arts Fort Worth with laughter, love, and a fun night of theater.