Revival of ‘Hello Dolly’ wows Denver Center audience

My mom loved show tunes, and one of the albums she’d put on the old record player on Sundays was the “Hello, Dolly!” original cast recording. Since the show and the album came out the same year I was born (1964), it’s fair to say the songs from “Hello, Dolly!” have been firmly embedded in my head for a lifetime.

But I’d never seen the show — until now.

It’s a powerful thing, to hear songs so well-known performed live on stage. Everyone knows the big “Hello, Dolly!” number, but this show’s 14 or so songs all struck the memory chord for me. Jerry Herman, who wrote all the music and lyrics, was red-hot in the early 1960s, and along with the book by Michael Stewart (itself based on a Thornton Wilder play) it’s easy to see how “Hello, Dolly!” went on to win 10 Tony Awards and, with its charismatic star Carol Channing in the title role, go on to more than 2,800 performances in its first Broadway run.

The touring production now showing at the Denver Center’s Buell Theatre through April 7 is a worthy revival, a powerhouse featuring Betty Buckley as Dolly and a standout cast. All of the principal actors bring fully realized and distinct characters to the stage, and their well-paced appearances on stage allows the audience to get familiar with each and every one of them.

Dance power

The biggest star in the show, however, is the dance troupe. Choreographed by Warren Carlyle and led by dance captain Ian Liberto, the big dance numbers in “Hello, Dolly!” are just ridiculously well done. There were parts of the show where I just watched their feet, amazed that so many people could be so precise and in-sync — especially given the extremely athletic and fast-paced choreography.

I don’t know what previous productions of this show looked like, but Carlyle’s approach to the choreography appears to be a mashup of synchronized swimming, gymnastics, hyper-ballroom and lightning-fast marching-band moves. The first scene in the restaurant as Act II begins features the troupe as waiters in a number appropriately called “The Waiters’ Gallop.” It’s as extraordinary a musical number you’re likely to see on any stage — a tour de force that left the audience momentarily stunned, then practically on its feet applauding.

Against this amped-up crew, the 71-year-old Buckley moves at a stately pace — an appreciative ringleader in the eye of a dancing hurricane. Unlike most female musical leads, Dolly is a role meant for an older woman (Channing was about 45 when she stepped into the role, reprising it in her 70s as well). Perhaps even 55 years ago some in the entertainment world were woke enough to realize not all stories revolve around youth.

Buckley is ideal as Dolly, a brassy, high-end hustler with a gruff voice who has business cards for everything — from lawyer and matchmaker to dance and mandolin instructor. Her veteran status as an actress in this plum role gives her leeway to wink at the audience, call out the performances around her and move through the action with the knowing attitude that, while the story is highly familiar, it’s well worth telling again.[rev_slider alias=”Dolly”]

Big show, big cast, big orchestra

This is a tight, extremely well-done production with nary a hair nor step out of place. The live orchestra, bolstered with a good number of local musicians, fills the hall and propels “Dolly” with the booming grandeur it demands.

Oh, and the story if you don’t know it: Around the turn of the 20th century, a widowed matchmaker (Dolly) needs a new husband, so she orchestrates a series of encounters that get her where she wants to be while fostering a few other romances along the way. The action is split between New York City and Yonkers — then a bucolic backwater just north of Manhattan where Dolly’s target, Horace Vandergelder, runs a hay and feed store.

The age of this musical produces a few wince-worthy moments, like Vandergelder’s “It Takes a Woman” where he muses on the utility of a wife when things like drains need cleaning out. Dolly’s smart-lady manipulation of Vandergelder is an old trope, as is the notion by most of the other female leads that the only path to happiness is marriage.

Compared to other shows of this vintage, though, “Hello, Dolly!” is fairly inoffensive, and it’s a quintessentially American, family-friendly show that even my 17-year-old son really enjoyed. Check it out to see one of the best examples of the big American musical. They don’t get much better than “Hello, Dolly!”