Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hello, Folly!

The title should not be taken as a reference to the whole new production of Hello, Dolly! at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, which opened last night. (The play, not the theatre - the theatre is always open. Except for when it's closed. But even then it's open, if you see what I mean.)

There are plenty of things to admire in this musical on several levels, even if the introductory note in the programme says that it is just a 'romp'. But the folly is the miscasting of Samantha Spiro (no relation - not even a para-relation) as widowed matchmaker in turn-of-the-century-New-York Dolly Levi, who can fix everyone's love life but her own. The show will be most famous as the movie starring iron-lunged and sweet-toned Barbra Streisand (see her do it here), but the original stage show starred, among others, Carole Channing and Ethel Merman. I think the problem is already apparent.

Samantha Spiro cannot match up to any of these, and worse, she cannot even sing well. Sure, she dances niftily and has a neat way with the Jewish shtick, but her voice is not an instrument which can sustain or even reach some of these notes. Vamping your rasping way through the climax of a song is not a subsitute for singing it. There was no point at which she adorned the gloriously bolshie melodies and chewable lyrics of Jerry Herman.

That aside, it was an enjoyable evening. (I think that is called bathos.) There was inventive choreography by Stephen Mear, some of which drew on the movie for classic scenes like the dance of the waiters at the Harmonia Gardens, where all the characters have retreated for an evening of waltzing, stuffed chickens and frenetic wait-service. The cast were put through their paces as whirl followed whirl followed whirl, all perfectly executed, complete with parasols.

For the scene where they all get the train to New York, the danced the train with its engine and wheels and carriage, and the hat of the character representing the smokestack even began to give off smoke. It was a small touch, but reflective of the humour and ingenuity which went into the show.

Director Timothy Sheader started off rather poorly, having Spiro walk through the audience and chat to them as her grand entrance, even as the cast were valiantly singing and dancing on stage and being completely ignored, but it got better with a clever use of the stage, designed by Peter McKintosh.

To return to that troublous introductory note. As penned by Emma Brockes, it is a masterpiece of vacuity: 'There are no subtexts in Hello, Dolly!, no satire nor social critique and certainly no moralising. It is, pure and simple, a romp in the best tradition of the American musical.'

This is fatuous to the extreme. Perhaps Jerry Herman didn't see it as a social critique, but Thornton Wilder, whose play this is based on, certainly did. Take the three principals: Dolly Levi, Horace Vandergelder (the curmudgeonly object of Dolly's love) and Irene Molloy (a milliner who longs to break out of the [hat]box).

All three are widows, advanced in years (relatively, of course), and all have been consigned by society into the box of decorous celibacy and decline - it is only their efforts and Dolly's personality which give them a second chance at happiness. Whereas most art likes the loves of the young, here we have marginalised older people centre-stage.

Another non-existent subtext might be the great clash between city and country. All is tedious and routine in rural Yonkers, where most of the characters live, and it is not until they arrive in New York that all hell breaks loose. This theme stretches back through Midsummer Night's Dream to the Bacchae (where the contrast is the other way round).

I would not claim that this is an intellectual masterpiece, but when you combine the terrific songs and dancing with these subtle themes, then Hello, Dolly! looks more like a work of drama than - as it is regularly perceived - a piece of fluff.

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