Midway into Act Two of Hello, Dolly! as all sorts of delicious high jinks are playing out at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, news races through the swanky bistro like a prairie wildfire: The bereaved widow Dolly Gallagher Levi is about to make her long-overdue return. (And we in the audience know what that means: One of the most shamelessly showy production numbers in the history of the American musical theater is about to begin.) As waiters scurry about in frenzied anticipation, the chef exclaims, "It's like old times."
His remark is doubly true. This week's immensely entertaining Muny production recalls not only the 1890s era in which this splendiferous Jerry Herman musical is set, but also an era 30, 40, 50 years ago when the Muny used to live up to its inflated logo, "Alone...In Its Greatness," with surprising regularity. This current Dolly! makes a persuasive case that those past productions really were as super as some of us remember them, because this one is of their lofty caliber.
What does the Muny have to do to present theater this satisfying on a regular basis? For starters, they have to hire directors who know how to direct. Lee Roy Reams, who in recent years has become the keeper of the Dolly! flame, knows this show inside out. He also is wise to the vagaries of the Muny stage, as his disciplined direction of Singin' in the Rain made clear two summers ago. Reams moves the action at a brisk clip while still taking the time to fill out every moment. He and his choreographer Randy Slovacek need make no apology for the Muny's tight rehearsal schedule. They have worked wonders.
After you hire the right director, the next step is to seek out the best possible actors. Randy Graff is an intriguing choice for the title role. She's closer to Barbra Streisand than to Carol Channing, which is to say that Graff acts the role rather than embraces it. She's a character actress rather than a clown, always assured and polished, but most comfortable in those moments when the play requires Dolly to be a mensch rather than a farceur. The lyrics inform us that Dolly behaves as she does "for the pleasure it derives." Although on opening night there was still some space between the performer and her portrayal, thanks in part to the responsive Muny audience, Graff's sense of pleasure in the role is going to grow more innate with each performance.
One of the advantages of not having a smothering personality in the title role is that all the other characters assume increased visibility, and we're able to see how tightly knit Michael Stewart's still-fresh script actually is. Kate Baldwin makes Irene Malloy, the milliner who hates hats, both sensuous and madcap. Baldwin casts an evocative spell as she veritably caresses the winsome "Ribbons Down My Back." She is delightfully assisted by Jennifer Cody, whose diminutive Minnie Fay is simply perfect.
As curmudgeon Horace Vandergelder, the noted "half a millionaire," Lewis J. Stadlen emits his own unintended sense of nostalgia. When the Muny first staged Show Boat in 1930, the legendary W.C. Fields starred as Cap'n Andy. Stadlen's droll delivery is as close as our generation will ever come to seeing Fields in Forest Park. Not since the great George Rose played the Wazir in Kismet in 1977 have I seen such a fully realized comic performance at the Muny.
As a musical, Hello, Dolly! has always been a triumph of style over substance. But as a state of mind, a well-staged Dolly! can instill euphoria. Here, the minor flaws get swept away by the tide of exuberance, professionalism and for some of us a golden opportunity to indulge the rose-colored past. To anyone who wants to know what the Muny productions used to be like week after week back in those falsely elevated days of yore: They were just like this.