What makes it special?: First revival of the show at Goodspeed.
First impressions?: All is well in American Musical Theater again because Dolly Levi is back, this time at the era-appropriate Goodspeed Opera House in a delightful, full-throttle production that reminds you of the charms, joys and heart of the original.
Klea Blackhurst makes a funny, warm and down-to-earth Dolly who would make not only Jerry Herman, but Thornton Wilder, proud. It's the feel-good show of the season and if it slips here and there and overplays its sweet schtick, no mind. You'll still have a special spring in your step as you walk down Goodspeed's grand red staircase on your way out.
But do they have a grand staircase on stage for title song number?: You bet. (Though I thought they'd be forced to use a Stairmaster on that minuscule stage.) But designer Andrian W. Jones did a largely successful job in transforming the itsy-bitsy stage into 1890's Yonkers and Manhattan
Kelli Barclay works wonders, too, evoking Gower Champion's original iconic choreography while making it her own, too. ("The Waiters' Gallop" remains a killer combo of dance and traffic control.) But she — as well as director Daniel Goldsten — are smart enough to expand their performing real estate by going beyond the footlights.
In what way?: Take Dolly's first entrance. She comes barreling down the aisle from the back of the house and up to the stage as if she were Mama Rose in "Gypsy." It's a nice nod to Ethel Merman, who was the last Broadway Dolly in the original run and it's doubly apt because Blackhurst, who pays tribute to Merman in her own series of concerts, has the Merm's boldness and belt.
But Blackhurst has her own humor, singing style and personal connection to the audience. She certainly gets great help from Wilder, who wrote the play from which the musical is based. Letting his characters step out of their scenes and speak directly and sincerely to the audience about life, love and how "the world is full of wonderful things" melts the crust off any cynic.
It's also something that Herman's upbeat, heart-felt songs have at their core and why folks inevitably succumb to the shows essential humanity and optimism. The cakewalk strut in "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," the anthem of transformation in "Before the Parade Passes By," and the sweet nostalgic sway of the title song, wrap their musical arms around the audience in a virtual hug.
The performances?: Tony Sheldon, as "well-known, half-millionaire" Horace Vandergelder hits all the fussbudget, cranky, penny-pinching, cartoon-sexist notes of the character. But he also adds another element not usually associated with the part: silver-haired sexiness. Sheldon even makes his all-too quick transformation from misanthrope to potentially human spouse not only inevitable, but believable
Ashley Brown as Mrs. Irene Malloy brings an intelligent playfulness to the role, not to mention a gorgeous soprano to Herman's beautiful ballads. This widow, along with Dolly and Vandergelder, are smart, independent and surprising survivors who mate in unexpected ways. Mrs. Malloy's romantic choice in Vandergelder's head clerk Cornelius Hackl (a lanky, quirky Spencer Moses) is blissfully off-center, again adding to the show's knack in finding charms in unexpected places.
Lending able support are Jeremy Moss as Barnaby, Catherine Blades as Minnie Fay and Brooke Shapiro as Ermengarde and an appealing, hard-working ensemble.
Who will like it?: Fans of the show, and who isn't? Those who like smart, funny, old-fashioned book musicals. WALL-E.
Who won't?: Anti-nostalgia sourpusses.
For the kids?: This is a good, family-friendly show to introduce not-yet-too-hip youngsters to musical theater. It was one of the first shows I saw on Broadway as a kid and I still remember it with deep fondness.(My Dolly was Ginger Rogers.)
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: It's so nice to have this show back on stage where it belongs.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: A fitting production for the 50th anniversary season, tapping into a classic from the last days of the Golden Age of Musical Theater — and reminding us of the sublime multiple effect that craft, art and heart can have on an audience.
The basics: The show runs through Sept. 12 at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam. Running time of the show is 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. (and matinees at 2 p.m. starting Aug. 1); Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. (and on Sept,. 14 at 2 and 6:30 p.m.) and Sundays at 2 p.m. (and evenings at 6:30 p.m. through July 28). Tickets are $29 to $77 at the box office and $32.50 to $81.50 on line (including fees). Information: 860-873-8668 and www.goodspeed,.org.