‘Hello Dolly’ at Spotlighters Theatre by Amanda Gunther

Put on your Sunday clothes and head down to Spotlighters Theatre to see a great classic revived to its glory days in their production of Hello, Dolly! Directed by Fuzz Roark, this Broadway sensation featuring music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart will have you wearing ribbons down your back by the time you head home. Just spend one evening with the great Dolly Gallagher Levi whose good natured meddlesome matchmaking will keep you smiling and humming along. The show is packed with fun loving characters each on an adventure for love; the perfect show to continue along with the theatre’s 50th Anniversary Season.

(l to r) Cornelius Hackl (Bart Debicki) Barnaby Tucker (Jeff Baker) Minnie Fay (Holly Gibbs) and Irene Molloy (Eileen del Valle) at Harmonia Gardens. Photo by Ken Stanek -Ken Stanek Photography.

No two people work harder than Set Designer Alan Zemla and Costumer Laura Nicholson to transform the quaint space to provide the grandiose nature that comes along with a production of Dolly. Zemla gives us distinctive set locations; the feed store complete with trap door cellar, the train station, even the hat shop fits the bill of extravagant. Elaborate sets for such a small space can be extremely tricky but Zemla’s work does the trick providing the actors ample space to move about — even creating the illusion that Barnaby and Cornelius are actually popping up from a deep root cellar beneath the store — while still allowing the audience to believe that they are experiencing a full scene change in vibrant new locations. His masterpiece comes in the form of a big reveal when the cast finally make it to the Harmonia Gardens restaurant in Act II.

Coupled with these impressive designs comes the work of Laura Nicholson who manages to recreate 1890’s New York fashion with an unforgettable flare. These aren’t just your every day dresses you’d find hanging around, but an array of patterns for the dresses like watermelon plaid, floral curtain, and gaudy gold that just jump off the characters and scream elegant! We see the most dapper suits for Barnaby and Cornelius in shades of eye-popping plum and bold burgundy respectively. And of course there’s Dolly who has roughly six costumes in all. The most stunning outfit on Dolly of course comes during that wonderful scene at Harmonia Gardens, but not wanting to give too much away I’ll simply say this: they dug deep in the closet to make her shine like the belle of the ball. Hats off to Nicholson and Zemla for putting the magic into this production.

Dolly Gallagher Levi (Maribeth Eckenrode). Photo by Ken Stanek-Ken Stanek Photography.

One of the most challenging things for a small stage in the round is the dancing. And while Dolly Levi’s card may say “33 year old clerks taught to dance” (that’s right she hands out cards to many of the audience) the dancing wouldn’t have happened in this space without the brilliant mind of Choreographer Kristen Cooley. The defining moment is showcased early on during “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” when the cast prepares to board the train and as one they move to the center of the stage and form an old fashioned locomotive train, shifting and dancing about as if they were actually the train in motion. Cooley uses a great deal of circle formations in her choreography keeping things neat and simple to really let the costumes and the ensembles smiles shine through. Watch out for her fancy footwork featuring Rudolph (Steve Avelleyra) during the Harmonia Gardens scene; it has all the levity and charm of a tap-dancing penguin.

The show is chock full of funny moments, Rudolph (Avelleyra) in particular taking up several of them. There’s tom-foolery to be had with Barnaby (Jeff Baker) and Cornelius (Bart Debicki.) The pair gives Abbott and Costello a run for their money during the hat shop hi-jinx hiding behind skirts, under enormous hats and all around running up a bill of shenanigans. When the pair pops up out of Vandergelder’s store cellar they look like jack-in-the-boxes wound on springs with painted smiles on their faces. Baker masters the youthful sound to his voice; the perfect high-pitched panic jumping out of his throat like a frog every time something risky gets mentioned. And Debicki plays the part of the older and supposedly wiser store clerk with a calming but excited voice, eyes always filled with excitement. Watching Debicki panic during various scenes, including the polka number at Harmonia Gardens, is hysterical. This pair of actors use their wide eyes and emotion filled faces to truly translate to the audience what it is to be broke and in love. And they complete one half of the quartet that really carries this show to glory.

Playing opposite these talented men are Eileen del Valle in the role of Irene Molloy and Holly Gibbs as Minnie Fay. Del Valle as Molloy plays the slightly reserved woman with perfect outbursts of emotion when called for. Her voice has a pure clarity to it when she sings “Ribbons Down My Back” and you can hear her over the incredibly loud accompaniment music blaring throughout the theatre. Paired up with Debicki the two share a beautiful harmonious duet in “It Only Takes A Moment” where Debicki’s voice rings out strong, a melodious rich sound, just as he does in his introductory solo to “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.” The pair has beautiful chemistry that blossoms like a young flower in spring time.

Minnie Fay (Holly Gibbs) is the epitome of a young girl with a spastic energy about her that’s contagious in regards to love. Her voice can be heard too above the music, especially well in “Elegance,” a quartet featuring both romantic couples. Playing opposite Barnaby (Baker) the pair offset the older romantic couple with their cute innocence. Together these four actors really bring excellence to the show and are the only singers that can consistently be heard over the music.

Therein lays the only flaw of this show. The music practically drowns out the singers that cannot vocally overpower it. While the ensemble is strong, individually singers get lost. This happens to Horace Vandergelder (Bob Ahrens) throughout the whole number of “It Takes A Woman.” Ahrens is incredibly soft spoken when most of us picture old man VanderGelder to be boisterous and grumpy at the top of his lungs, but this simply isn’t the case for Ahrens, and unfortunately he is completely washed away. This also happens to Dolly (Maribeth Eckenrode) during “I Put My Hand In There” for while Eckenrode has a powerful belt, her upper register is wispy and airy and you lose her completely anytime she isn’t belting. I’m confident that this problem will be rectified.

The cast of 'Hello Dolly.' Photo by Ken Stanek-Ken Stanek Photography.

Eckenrode does have the sound that you expect when Dolly belts that life-changing number “Before The Parade Passes By.” Her yearning to get back in the game of life is palpable as each note crescendos to a peak. And when she makes her entrance at Harmonia Gardens she lights up the room with her charming smile and grand style. Eckenrode again gets her belt on for “So Long, Dearie” as she blasts Ahrens out of the water with this goodbye song. Her cheerful exuberance is exactly what you’d expect from the matchmaking star of the show.

So don’t delay, head on down to this fantastic production of Hello, Dolly! before the parade passes you by!

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Hello, Dolly! plays through May 20, 2012 at Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre – 817 St. Paul Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (410) 752-1225, or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther
Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.


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