Before the rock music of “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” before the ironies of Stephen Sondheim, before the bleak visions of Kander and Ebb, before the epic stagings of “Phantom” and “Les Miz,” Broadway musicals relied on at least one of three elements: hummable melodies that could be recorded by pop singers, roles where a star could bewitch the audience and a conflict-and-resolution structure dating to operettas of the 19th century.
“Hello, Dolly!” had all three. They were masterfully assembled 55 years ago by author Michael Stewart, who adapted Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” and composer-lyricist Jerry Herman, now the last living practitioner of this ancient art. (He turned 88 Wednesday.) When the show closed in 1970, after going through seven famous actresses in the title role, it was the longest-running musical in history.
The national tour came to Belk Theater Tuesday in the PNC Broadway Lights series, bringing the production that won a 2017 Tony for best musical revival. It trails acclaim from critics and audiences the way seraphim trail clouds of glory in Renaissance paintings.
Yet the praise fits. This “Dolly” – no museum piece, but a vital example of a form taken seriously by re-creators – both is and isn’t the show your parents loved.
A theatrical icon still plays the woman who straightens out romantic problems for others and, finally, herself: Betty Buckley, who first reached Broadway 50 years ago. The songs burn themselves into memory all over again, this time with new orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Once more, sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto deliver the longed-for opulence.
Yet this Dolly has been paired with the strongest Vandergelder I’ve seen on Broadway or on tour, Lewis J. Stadlen. His gruff “half-a-millionaire” stands his own against the irresistible matchmaker who claims him. Stadlen plays Vandergelder with the roguish exaggeration of a great vaudevillian; long after his 1970 Broadway debut as young Groucho Marx in “Minnie’s Boys,” he gives us a taste of Groucho’s half-mocking outrage.
We notice new things about Dolly, too. She’s a feisty Irishwoman – Dolly Gallagher, before marrying Ephraim Levi – with a hint of brogue and a delight in her own blarney. Carol Channing played to the audience when I saw her, begging for admiration, but Buckley plays with the audience, making us co-conspirators. Her addresses to the late Ephraim seem like requests for guidance, not grandstand appeals to the world at large.
Director Jerry Zaks tweaked major characters, and to good effect. Lonely Cornelius Hackl (Nic Rouleau), Vandergelder’s lowly-paid clerk at 33, has a poignant side, despite his outward cheer. Irene Molloy (Analisa Leaming) seems less wistful and more playful, not just hoping to meet an eligible guy but claiming her right to be loved. The third leads haven’t changed: Minnie and Barnaby giggle and gush, but Kristen Hahn and Sean Burns make them fun to watch.
The whirling, high-stepping dancers deserve special mention. Warren Carlyle kept some of Gower Champion’s moves from the ’60s – look for the waiters’ small, intricate steps in place – but added fresh touches. Like the rest of the show, his choreography has one foot in the past and one in the present, reminding us why “Dolly” should never go away.
WHEN: Through July 14 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes with one intermission.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.
Want to get more arts stories like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the free “Inside Charlotte Arts” newsletter at charlotteobserver.com/newsletters
You can also join our Facebook group, “Inside Charlotte Arts,” at https://www.facebook.com/groups/insidecharlottearts/