When Hello, Dolly! burst onto the scene in January 1964, its immediate and wild popularity nearly obliterated its source material, Thornton Wilder's gentle farce The Matchmaker. And that is a pity, because The Matchmaker offers charms that the brassy musical can't even begin to offer, most notably warmth and humanity.
While it offered a welcome confirmation that Wilder's work can (and should) hold the stage, St. Bart's revival unfortunately failed to make any impression other than that St. Bart's is an average community theatre with an above-average amount of money to spend on their productions. As with The Most Happy Fella earlier this season, the physical production was a sumptuous confection: a beautiful candy-box set (designed by Ariadne Condos) and delicately floating costumes (Kimberly Glennon) served both production and author with outstanding fidelity to the atmosphere and meaning of both the text and its late-19th-century New York setting. (Though Jeremy Morris's lighting, while bright, was perhaps a touch too subtle and unvarying.)
Any production of The Matchmaker is going to rise and fall on the performances of its Dolly Levi and Horace Vandergelder, and this is where St. Bart's truly fell. Jim Mullins was a lovably gruff Vandergelder, but he lacked the edge that makes his character so necessarily frightening to the other characters in the play. And Julie Hansen, while hard-working, was far too young for Dolly, and nowhere near as conniving, playful, or fragile as she needed to be. Neither of these performers were helped by the lackluster staging provided by director Donald Brenner. Brenner's production suffered from slow pacing mixed with frantic, unfocused hysteria in the more farcical scenes; there didn't seem to be any work done on characterizations, nor did there seem to be a consistent tone or point of view toward the material. Likewise, the supporting performances were a hodge-podge of styles, with good work coming from Ken Altman and David J. Fritz as Vandergelder's put-upon clerks Cornelius and Barnaby, and Renee DePietro as a fiery Irene Molloy. The most outstanding work came from Jean Frances as the addled but wise Flora Van Huysen and Brad Negbaur as Malachi Stack - it is interesting to note that these two small roles were cut from the musical version, and these are the two roles (and performances) that give the work its heart and soul.
Even in this less than perfect production, however, The Matchmaker is to be preferred to its more popular progeny. The familiar characters are more finely drawn, the story has considerably deeper charm, and it is always a welcome feeling to return to a world where adventure waits just around the corner, and the outcome, if predictable, is nevertheless positive and life-affirming.
(Also featuring Kevin Bain, Amy Daley, Jennifer
Hirsh, Peter Neuman, Veronica Shea.)
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita