Someone should clone this ‘Dolly;’ fops and flops at ‘The Misanthrope’
"Hello, Dolly!" is the prototype of the frothy, big-hearted, splashy musical, the kind of show most people probably think of when someone says "big Broadway show." How often do producers have the guts to use an exclamation point in the title of their shows … and mean it? At the top of Act 2, the arrival of meddling matchmaker Dolly Levi at the Harmonia Gardens follows so much build-up by a crew of dancing waiters, the actress gets the best diva entrance in all musical theater: A long walk down a dramatic staircase in a bright red gown. It’s Donna Reed without the cloying domesticity, fully intended to evoke hoots and cheers.
So if Lyric Stage, which specializes in brassy Broadway musicals pared down to fit their space and budget, skimps a little on the length of the staircase, stealing a bit of the awe, that’s easily forgivable. At least director Cheryl Denson has given the star, Julie Johnson, wide latitude to overdo it. What this "Dolly" lacks in steps it more than makes up for with joyous, hammy emotional excess.
"Hello, Dolly" is a show that not only permits hamming it up, it encourages it. John Garcia (as an obsequious maitre d’) and Francis Fuselier (as a gin-soaked judge) roll around in their shtick like millionaires in money, but they never fail to get laughs. Michael Madrinkian as the big-eared, squeaky voiced Barnaby turns moon-faced naivete into a minor art form.
If it is possible to go too far, Johnson aims for it. She has the annoying habit of indicating with her hands every lyric — her fingers get more of a workout than her feet. This isn’t "Mummenschanz;" we don’t need our actors to mime each little description.
So don’t look — listen. Johnson can Borscht Belt-out a song with Merman-like brassiness, and she has a great sense for the character’s humor and vulnerability. On "So Long, Dearie," she’s in full Norma Desmond mode: extravagant, playful, fun.
Johnson is well-matched by Bradley Campbell as the miserly object of her designs, Horace Vandergelder. His luxuriant, powerful baritone on "It Takes a Woman" anchors the terrific barbershop harmonies; when in full bluster, he’s a totally appealing windbag.
As Irene Malloy, Catherine Carpenter Cox’s contralto is gorgeous, even on the largely extraneous number "Ribbons Down My Back" (which never seemed to fit with the tone of the show), delivering a performance that is sexy, almost lurid.
Steven Jones’ performance as Cornelius Hackl is winning, but it’s in his role as founding producer of Lyric Stage that he does his most remarkable work, assembling great local talent and showing ambition nearly equal to the best national tours. This "Dolly" embodies what we’re all looking for in a musical: homegrown Broadway.
Theatergoers have long become accustomed to directors tweaking classic shows by inserting modern conceits. (Kitchen Dog Theater’s recent "Richard III" incorporated cell phones and firearms into its retelling of English royal history.) So when contemporary rock music launches the Dallas Theater Center’s season-ending production of "The Misanthrope," even as the characters remain in classical dress, we’re willing to buy into it.
When a servant enters with packages from Chanel and Tiffany, withhold judgment, willing to see where the director, David Kennedy, wants to take all this. Even after a disco ball, a boombox, iPods and acrylic furniture turn up, we’re still waiting for that moment, that scene, when it all comes together.
But that scene never arrives. Despite all the opportunities to wink at the audience and justify the gimmick, it remains just that: A gimmick. Inventive reimagining is one thing; theatrical navel-gazing is quite another.
Maybe there is no greater purpose for the anachronisms than merely to keep the audience from drowning in all of the verse. "The Misanthrope," often regarded as Moliere’s most refined masterpiece, is better as an essay on social manners than as a play. The script is talky, with less dialogue than monologue, less speaking than speechifying.
Alceste (Adrian LaTourelle) is a 17th century Simon Cowell in a world of Paulas and Randys. He doesn’t understand the workings of (or the purpose behind) social niceties. Why say "a pleasure to meet you" when it’s not a pleasure? He makes Dr. House look like James Lipton.
But for all his grousing, Alceste is desperately in love with Celimene (Kelly Mares) who is, ironically, the most two-faced of all the courtiers: Vain, empty-headed and mean — a nasty trifecta.
Literary critics have debated for centuries whether the primary targets of Moliere’s satiric barbs are the phonies or the crank, and DTC’s production hardly clarifies it. (Matthew Gray and Jessica D. Turner provide the voices of rationality, walking between the extremes.) But, at least at the preview performance reviewed, it generates laughs along the way.
LaTourelle’s Alceste is equal parts Richard Lewis and Dick York — black eyes, jaw in a perpetual clench, lips curved over his teeth in a perfect snarl — with the honeyed voice of Jonathan Pryce. Grimacing constantly is a thankless task, especially because he’s surrounded by a trio of unctuous, mincing fops.
Regan Adair, Ash Smith and Shawn Fagan elevate all the antics with their broadly etched, grandly comic performances. Bedecked in Junghyun Georgia Lee’s gloriously outrageous costumes, their faces painted with more greasepaint and powder than Tammy Faye, they are the production’s clowns, figuratively and literally. Their well-honed buffoonery, tongues dripping with smugness and insincerity, allows them to easily waltz away with their scenes.
The second act is both jauntier and more serious than the first, when most of the cobwebs from Moliere’s lessons about hypocrisy have been brushed away. But with a final resolution unlikely to appease anyone, "The Misanthrope" never quite gets where it needs to be emotionally. It’s as if "Dangerous Liaisons" ended before Madame de Merteuil gets her comeuppance. If I want that, I’ll watch "Super Sweet Sixteen."
"Hello, Dolly," Irving Arts Center, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd., Irving. Through May 10. Thursdaysâ€“Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday and May 10 at 2:30 p.m. $24â€“$30. 972-252-2787.
"The Misanthrope," Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through May 18. Sundays, Tuesdaysâ€“Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridaysâ€“ Saturdays at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2 p.m. $15â€“$60. 214-522-8499.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 2, 2008.