The Open Air Theatre's production of Hello Dolly! opened to critics this week (10 August, previews from 30 July), marking the show's first major London revival since 1982, when Danny La Rue played the title role at the Prince of Wales Theatre.
Taking on the eponymous match-maker this time round is Samantha Spiro (recently seen in Funny Girl at the Chichester Festival Theatre), in a production directed by Open Air artistic director Timothy Sheader and choreographed by Stephen Mear (the same team behind last year’s Whatsonstage.com Award-nominated revival of Gigi).
Jerry Herman's musical, which has a book by Michael Stewart, premiered on Broadway in 1964 and went on to scoop ten Tony Awards. It was famously made into a 1969 film starring Barbra Streisand in the title role.
Alongside Spiro, the Open Air cast also features Allan Corduner, Mark Anderson, Clare Louise Connolly, Oliver Brenin, Daniel Crossley, Josefina Gabrielle, Akiya Henry, Andy Hockley and John Stacey.
The overnight critics generally welcomed Hello Dolly! back to the London stage with open arms. Although some labelled Herman's match-making musical intrinsically “odd” and “strange” on the plot front, all were agreed that in Samanth Spiro, director Sheader has unearthed a “superlative lead”, more than capable of driving this “star vehicle” of a show. Her co-star Allan Corduner was generally deemed the perfect foil as the “tyrannical Vandergelder”, while Stephen Mear's “stunning” choreography was the stand-out feature in several critics' eyes. On balance though the evening, and its thunder, undoubtedly belonged to Spiro.
Simon Edge on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Last year’s touring production starring Anita Dobson didn’t make it any closer into town than the New Wimbledon Theatre, so it’s a quarter of a century since Londoners have had the chance to see Hello Dolly! … At 41, Samantha Spiro is youngish for the title role - two years younger than Carol Channing when she first took it on, although a good bit older than the miscast Barbra Streisand in the movie. She doesn’t have Channing’s goofy rasp, but she does glow, just as the lyrics say she should … She’s paired against an equally powerful Allan Corduner as the tyrannical Vandergelder - although he has the taller order, to persuade us that the manipulative Dolly really might want to corner him into matrimony. With the voice of a cheese-grater and the teeth of a shark, he is chiefly attractive to her for his money: the odd charm of this show is its cheerful hard-headedness.”
Maxie Szalwinska in the Independent (three stars) - ““Samantha Spiro, fresh from her turn in Funny Girl has scary shoes to fill as the widowed busybody Dolly Gallagher Levi. She wears them lightly. Small, neat and budgerigar-like, she nips around, sticking her beak into everyone's affairs … Spiro … works hard to make bossiness appealing, and her rendition of 'Hello, Dolly!' is like a warm embrace and wins us over. Jerry Herman's nostalgia-fest of a musical is big, brash and silly, forever teetering on the brink of saccharine. Timothy Sheader's staging offers a pure jolt of light relief, carefully building up audience goodwill with its pretty, sometimes striking stage pictures. Stephen Mear ringmasters the dancers well. There's a delightfully choreographed train sequence, and it's splendid when the whole cast parades down the aisles in their candy-coloured bodices and bowlers during the rousing 'Put On Your Sunday Clothes'.”
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “This is wholesome, feelgood entertainment. Cynics and firebrands should look elsewhere for their fun. What we get instead is a nostalgia trip, replete with upbeat tunes and spectacular millinery ... This, undeniably, is a star vehicle, and Samantha Spiro is that star. Her Dolly is spirited, puckish, brassy, intelligent. Her mezzo voice may lack a certain creaminess towards its bottom end, but this is a small complaint: she’s a delight to behold, possessing a luminosity that’s both delicate and strong. Among the support there is some overacting - a touch, indeed, of cartoonish flummery. Yet there’s plenty to relish ... Brisk, energetic and joyful, Hello Dolly makes a virtue of its limits. It’s an exuberant exhibition of elegant silliness, and in Samantha Spiro it has a superlative lead who deserves to be far better known”.
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “I find it hard to care what happens to Horace Vandergelder’s much-misused clerks when they go to New York to seek adventure and find romance in the shop of a milliner who 'hates hats'. But the bond at the show’s core is another matter … there were times when I wondered if a role played by Carole Channing, Ethel Merman and Barbra Streisand needed more brashness; but never mind, Spiro’s manipulation of Horace, the 'half-a-millionaire' she plots to make her second husband, is as hilarious as it’s quick-witted. It helps that he’s played by that fine actor Allan Corduner, who isn’t just 'rich, friendless and mean' but a gloriously grouchy blend of Dickens’ Scrooge, Molière’s Harpagon and our own PM … It was all too tuneful, too bright, too much fun to be stopped by English wetness.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - ““Based on a play by Thornton Wilder, it remains an odd show … The standout feature of this production is, in fact, Stephen Mear's stunning choreography, and that is seen at its best in 'Put On Your Sunday Clothes', when the youths from Yonkers lead the ensemble in a wittily simulated trainride to the big city. Mear also cleverly invests the gallop by the scarlet-coated waiters at the Harmonia Gardens with a hint of heel-clicking Prussian militarism. This takes some of the pressure off Dolly Levi's over-hyped entrance and allows the admirable Spiro to focus instead on conveying a sparky young widow's need for wealthy companionship. Allan Corduner does all he can with the curmudgeonly Horace, and Josefina Gabrielle displays outstanding elegance as a sexually eager milliner. My heart, however, really goes out to the dance ensemble who, on a night of thin drizzle, trod the boards with fearless elan.”