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!. That’s quite an absence, but the piece is still looking surprisingly swell considering it’s so ditzy and far-fetched. It’s nice to have this belting Broadway classic back where it belongs, albeit for a limited season.
Director Timothy Sheader has made no attempt to rethink or update Jerry Herman’s musical adaptation of a Thornton Wilder play, in which the talkaholic but loveable busybody Dolly Levi sets out to entrap into marriage her most curmudgeonly client, the Yonkers half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder.
Sheader and choreographer Stephen Mear make up for that caution with an evening of precision-controlled physicality in both dance and comedy – and sometimes both at once. The scene where Vandergelder searches a New York hat shop for two rogue male customers hiding in the display cabinets – not knowing that they are his own clerks – is brilliantly pulled off. And it’s not often that a piece of stage business – in this case the company turning themselves into a steam train using hat boxes for the engine and a smoking stove-pipe hat for the funnel – generates spontaneous applause.
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. With shining cheeks on top of a permanent, happy beam, she exudes the charisma that makes Dolly such an unexplained hit with the tap-dancing waiters at New York’s swanky Harmonia Gardens restaurant (the location of the ever-wonderful title number). And while she is physically small, her voice is big enough to fight an overhead helicopter – one of the occupational hazards of Regent’s Park – and win.
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.
Conventional romance is confined to the younger roles, and Daniel Crossley and Josefina Gabrielle are perfectly matched as the stir-crazy clerk Cornelius Hackl and the frustrated milliner Irene Molloy. The antidote to bland male leads, he looks like the cat that got the whole creamery when he wins his girl; while her classy poise is spiced with fascinatingly scary eyes. Akiya Henry is entertainingly angular and nervy as the milliner’s maid Minnie, while Annalisa Rossi has a ball as Ernestina, Vangelder’s rough-as-sandpaper early-evening date.
Sheader’s unpretentious production, designed by Peter McKintosh around a plain wooden rotunda, could have been staged at any time over the last four decades. It’s an “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach which is vindicated by the crisp verbal and physical comedy he elicits from the work. Hello Dolly! may require a major suspension of disbelief, even by the standards of musical theatre, but it’s more than just a glorious staircase number, endlessly reprised.