The Winter Garden production is Central Florida’s first following months of COVID-related closures.
“I like it,” my friend told me during intermission at last night’s production of HELLO, DOLLY! at the Garden Theatre, “but I’m not entirely sure I follow it.”
“Well, she’s a matchmaker,” I told him, bearing in mind that he’s brand-new to Dolly Levi and the musical that’s made her a household name since 1963, “but also a….”
“Machiavelli,” chimed another.
DOLLY! is all about one woman’s quest to hoodwink a rich man into marrying her while also matchmaking all of early-1900s New York. But it’s about bigger things, too: moving on, moving up, and making the most of life.
Fate couldn’t have found a more fitting show for the Garden Theatre’s 2020 return than one with a whole song about getting out of the house and hitting the town. Indeed, with lines like “gonna get some life back into my life” and “the rest of us are in great danger of contamination,” DOLLY wouldn’t let us forget the pandemic even if its cast weren’t wearing masks.
…But they are, by the way. That’s probably why my friend had a hard time following the plot. The Garden does all it can to make the masks manageable, creatively integrating them as wardrobe. But perhaps unavoidably, some lines get muffled.
I’d love to see Shonda L. Thurman as a socially undistanced Dolly someday, but even under the circumstances, she earns the exclamation point in her eponymous HELLO! She’s a confident Dolly. A funny Dolly. A Dolly whose jollity is tempered by a tinge of widowed world-weariness, which the role calls for but doesn’t always have. I still can’t get over her one-of-a-kind take on the Miss Molloy’s hat shop scene, during which my own mask could not muffle my literal LOLs.
Later, when Thurman very briefly removes her mask to let the opening lines of “Before the Parade Passes By” make full impact, I realized both how much masks do detract from the overall experience and also just how good she really is.
Speaking of Miss Molloy and things I still can’t get over: Lillie Eliza Thomas and her performance of “Ribbons Down My Back.” I’ve always liked the tune, but this is the first time in my DOLLY-lovin’ life that it’s felt like that song matters. Thomas, under Joseph Walsh’s thoughtful direction, performs it with a poignancy and sense of dramatic urgency that made me reconsider that song’s role in the show.
Russell Stephens, who returns to the Garden after wowing me in Violet last season, tackles many of the most iconic songs as Cornelius Hackl. You love to hear him sing. He shows off strong comedic chops too, and a gameness for jumping across the stage with gusto. His Hackl and Anthony Morehead’s Barnaby make for quite the likeable pair. Broadway veteran Brian Minyard, meanwhile, is equal parts gentlemanly and gruff as Horace Vandergelder, the object (er- target) of Dolly’s affection.
Not everything works. The pacing is uneven and sometimes frantic. The set is simpler and less polished than in the Garden’s greatest productions. Two circus costumes in the parade sequence look like something out of the ’60s. And the all-important blocking in Miss Molloy’s hat shop was less than believable on Wednesday night, though I still laughed.
But what’s more important is everything that does work despite the odds. The Garden commits to keeping characters from touching – no small feat for a romantic comedy – and finds creative ways to accomplish that. Borrowing from the ballad of Irene Molloy, actors pair off and dance while holding either end of a ribbon in lieu of holding hands. It’s a strikingly artistic solution that is so pretty and poetic that I almost prefer it to the pre-pandemic norm.
The ribbons are just a part of the overall excellent choreography, which stands out as one of this production’s real triumphs. A special shout-out to Elijah Vazquez, whose dancing was so outstandingly good that I came away assuming he was the dance captain even though there isn’t one listed in the program (now a digital download, FYI… thanks, Corona!). Kudos to choreographer Lindsey D. Smith.
You know, it’s a very odd experience writing a theatre review that feels like it’s meant to answer the question, “Is seeing this show worth risking my life?” I can’t answer that question for you or anyone else – or even for myself, really. If I’m being honest, I felt very conflicted about heading back into a theatre, and I still couldn’t tell you if it was the right choice. (That’s a statement, not a solicitation of opinion.)
The Garden has done just about everything a theatre of its size can do to mitigate risk and keep its patrons safe, from exemplary entry/exit procedures to safety announcements, ample hand sanitizer, reduced capacity, and universal mask requirements for audience and cast and crew. I did notice that the socially distanced seat assignments still had some strangers within six feet of each other. The Garden is a small venue that has been shuttered for months, so I understand the challenges, but I feel obligated to share the observation.
My own misgivings notwithstanding, it did feel very good to be back in a theatre again. You don’t realize how much you’ve missed the arts – how much you love them, need them, and are made alive by them – until you’ve gone without them and then find them again. The folks at The Garden know how to uplift, entertain, and inspire. It’s so nice to have them back where they belong.
The cast also includes Ambria M. Benjamin (Minnie Fay), Reid Canal (Ambrose Kemper), Sarah Isola (Ermengarde), Kadesh Lewis (Judge), Eli Hamilton (Court Clerk), Janine Papin (Mrs. Rose), Terry E. Thomas (Rudolph), and Christine Brandt, Sarah Rose Hackshaw, Dakota Hemberger, Noah A. Lyon, Laura Mansoori, Brooke Schellpfeffer, Malik Van Hoozer-Elliott, Ethan Walker, Jared Warren, and the aforementioned Vazquez in the ensemble.
HELLO, DOLLY! runs through Sunday, September 27, 2020, so get your tickets before the parade passes by.
What did you think of HELLO, DOLLY! at Garden Theatre? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photos by Steven Miller Photography, courtesy of Garden Theatre