IF YOU GO
What: Golden Age musical about the New York City adventures of Dolly Levi
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through March 31
Where: 701 5th Avenue South, Naples
Cost: $35; show is completely sold out, a few tickets are available each night via a waiting list at the box office
Information: (239) 263-7990, naplesplayers.com
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
NAPLES — The Naples Players belted out "Hello, Dolly!" in grand style Wednesday night, opening their sold-out musical in a billowing fashion parade of fine costumes, elegant hats and energetic dancing. While the show isn't perfect, it at least entertains you "Before the Parade Passes By."
"Dolly," one of Broadway's most famous and enduring hits, won ten Tony Awards for producer David Merrick in 1964; the show also made Carol Channing a star. Michael Stewart wrote the book, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. The original Broadway production was directed and choreographed by Gower Champion.
The show follows widowed matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi (a hard-working Debi Guthery) and her adventures "meddling" in the lives of New Yorkers far and wide. Though Dolly has many professions, she's mainly a match-maker (and husband-hunter). Through twists and turns, Dolly decides to marry a wealthy feed store owner - and pair off three other young couples. Along the way, there's a visit to a hat shop, a polka contest, arrests, a parade and even a stuffed whale.
Director Dallas Dunnagan goes - as usual - for sheer spectacle in favor of story. Working with choreographer Dawn Lebrecht Fornara, she throws every trick in her considerable playbook at the audience to divert from the fact that the show itself barely scrapes by. This "Dolly" can be enormously entertaining in spots - and drags in others.
Lebrecht Fornara faced working with an amateur chorus composed largely of non-dancers - a far cry from this summer's "42nd Street." She axes the complexity of the dance steps, but attempts to keep the sense of movement. Coupled with the costumes, props and what must have been hours of hard work, blood, sweat and tears on behalf of the entire ensemble, the effort pays off.
"Call on Dolly," with the cast sporting acres of finery, opens the show with a bang. Bouncy "I Put My Hand In" continues the hot streak. Energetic "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" even takes the ensemble on a fashion parade into the audience.
Curtain number "Before the Parade Passes By" lets Guthery belt the standard backed by the ensemble in a series of patriotic costumes. There's a marching band, suffragettes (it's 1890, after all), dancehall girls in big skirts and more. While the basic steps are simple, it gives the flavor of giddy excitement.
Even the signature "Waiter's Gallop," with a cadre of acrobatic servers, proves acceptable. While the sequence loses something without the antics that should be performed by a full chorus of tumbling twenty-somethings, lots of motion helps. The men spar with kebab sticks, whirl napkins, fling serving trays and race with serving carts. Title song "Hello, Dolly," performed by the waiters of Harmonia Gardens, feels underwhelming but gets the job done in the end.
Full points though to four ensemble members: Jacob Carbary, Gaston Edmond, Jacob Hartman and Alex Cole who bring a hefty amount of sparkle to the chorus. Watch for their big smiles, extra flourishes and ability to "act" while dancing.
"Elegance," featuring veteran performers James Little (Cornelius), Jake Hanson (Barnaby), Jane Armstrong (Irene Molloy) and Laura Needle (Minnie Fay), proves a welcome exception. Their number, a beautifully choreographed piece that highlights the growing chemistry between the couples, stands out. It's easily the best moment in the show as the four turn their considerable dancing skills to the moment, cut loose and very obviously have fun on the stage.
Beyond the footwork, there's the fabric. A huge cast wears dozens of hand-sewn costumes produced by Dot Auchmoody's crew of volunteer seamstresses. Every frock in the fashion parade - a veritable Crayola box of pastel confections for gentlemen and ladies - seems more luscious than the last.
And hats - hats for every occasion from Mark Vanagas. Debi Guthery's Dolly gets a series of crowning platters - each larger and more elaborate than the last. You could float to Cuba on some of them. One, a feathered fan, reaches showgirl heights. Another, laden with what looked like a carpet shop of ruffles, ribbons and bows, tilted precariously off Guthery's head. The show even sets a scene in a hat shop - giving cause for more decoration.
Massive sets (from Matt Flynn) in bright pink, fresh green and saucy purple - even a two-story judge's bench - dominate the stage. New York's Harmonia Gardens restaurant (another two-story set) looks smashingly fashionable - there's even a special facade that drops down for use in a single brief interlude.
Mary Wallace led the costume shop in creating special outfits for the restaurant scene. Watch for longtime volunteer Beverly Canell in a brilliant comedic turn and an eye-popping gold creation.
Distracted yet? That's the plan. It very nearly succeeds.
The show's dance numbers leap off the stage while scenes drift to a meandering conclusion, squandering momentum like Dolly dispensing advice. It's not that the show is slow (it isn't) - just frustratingly inconsistent from minute to minute.
Dunnagan leans heavily on Guthery's voice and acting ability to keep the show moving. Sometimes though, it feels like she's literally being asked to carry the entire show - or that Dunnagan presses so hard the actress can neither truly act or enjoy the role.
Still, Guthery, in her fourth consecutive major role in a Naples Players musical dating back to "Annie," remains one of the theater's strongest assets. While she's not Carol Channing in 1964, she doesn't need to be. She certainly brings the pipes - and there's a certain charm to her Dolly - especially with the mischievous matchmaking. Wait for the moment when Dolly tries to finish her dinner (Guthery has brilliant comic skills) before practicing her law skills.
Little makes the most of his moments with Armstrong; their "It Only Takes a Moment" duet, when the shy store clerk declares his love, conjures up some of the show's only honest emotion. He and Hanson make a too-cute pair of bumbling store clerks; watch for Hanson in the background of every scene.
Jim Heffernan stepped in as half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder less than a week before opening night. On short notice, he brings a brusque efficiency to the character. He and Guthery haven't had time to click, but a semi-flirtacious restaurant scene shows the beginnings of comic chemistry.
"Hello, Dolly!" does a lot of things well, if not exactly right. Pretty sets and jaw-droppingly gorgeous costumes offer plenty of eye candy to feast upon. Guthery makes an appealing Dolly with plenty of vocal power and comic ability. Even simplified, the show's dance sequences, especially "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" and "Before the Parade Passes By," often punch far above their weight - and offer most of the show's entertainment value. Don't say goodbye, say "Hello," to "Dolly!"
"I've gotta get in step while there's still time left." Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.