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.