Curtain Up: Despite some minor faults, ‘Hello, Dolly!’ a success at Naples Players

Can “Dolly” survive without “Hello, Dolly”? This musical is perhaps the best star vehicle ever written, and the title number the best production number. It is in some ways the heart of the show.

If you have seen a great star in the role of Dolly – and I have had the privilege of seeing both Carol Channing and Ethel Merman – you know what I mean. Once the song gets rolling, for some reason that you cannot fully understand, you find yourself, along with the rest of the audience, going wild, applauding the actress’s every move, clapping until your hands are sore. Love of the actress, of her performance, and of gutsy, meddling, wonderful Dolly charges the spectators to a level of virtual adoration.

It does not succeed the way it needs to in the Naples Players production of “Hello, Dolly!” There may be aesthetic choices at play here — why should director Dallas Dunnagan forego the traditional red gown and feathers for an attractive but forgettable costume? Why is the setting — throughout the rest of the play a charming and finished confection of pastels — suddenly dimly lit and drabbish?

The biggest issue, however, is that this doesn’t succeed without the love. Debi Guthery performs gamely, but an amateur performer, no matter how gifted, cannot be expected to carry it off.

And yet the play as a whole succeeds. It is a well-constructed piece. The other production numbers are great examples of stagecraft. Take “Put on your Sunday Clothes.” It begins with two lonely bachelors encouraging themselves to take an adventure, then grows and grows to an exciting paean to adventure itself and to the joy of taking chances, sung by a full chorus (the vocal performance of the chorus is impressive here). Even with obvious gaps — minimal dancing and superannuated juveniles — the number gets one caught up and sets the play in motion.

Guthery, notwithstanding the above, gives a strong performance. When she opens her mouth to sing, she has real authority. I cannot think of a single bad performance here. It almost goes without saying that the costumes are beautiful and professional.

The story is more than fluff, it is (to this cornball, at least) truly moving. The play is filled with characters with bleak futures — two widows and a widower facing loneliness, store clerks with no prospects for success or happiness — and they are miraculously rescued (with Dolly’s intervention, of course). Tragedy is an inch away, but the characters, at the end of their ropes, seize the day and take a chance, and disaster is averted. Is this fantasy? Occasionally these things happen. I have certainly had serendipitous events in my own life that changed it for the good, people appearing when I needed them. Miracles happen, and they are to be celebrated.

Meanwhile, Gulfshore Playhouse presents an outstanding production of “The Fox on the Fairway” by Ken Ludwig, one of our best farceurs. It has everything you need — crisp, choreographed direction, performances that are broad without falling over into caricatures, slamming doors, embarrassing situations, misunderstandings, a happy ending.

This is the first production at GSP not directed by Kristin Coury, but she has recruited Matt Lenz who does a fine job.

I have yet to see — well, with perhaps one exception, but never mind — a poor performance at Gulfshore Playhouse. Once again, the casting is perfect. Particularly outstanding is the young actor Chris Dwan who plays Justin, a lovestruck golf phenom. He has great charm, and handles the physical comedy with apparent ease, not to mention impressive flexibility. Justin is the center of attention in “The Fox in the Fairway” and Dwan fills the play with heart.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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