Stepping into the shoes of an iconic role is always fraught with danger. I saw Richard Burton in Camelot and did not really want to see anyone else play that role. I also saw Carol Channing in Hello Dolly! but I was willing to give it a second look in this production currently playing in Tucson. To be fair I also decided to suspend my judgment until I had spoken to others who saw Carolee Carmello play the role of Dolly.
Even though people I spoke to admitted it was not fair to compare the two actresses (which I agree with), I did not have to canvas a host of people to find negative reactions. “Dolly by Channing was charismatic. Carmello has a fine voice and works very hard on the role, but she lacks the flair.” Another person who had seen Channing in Dolly put his finger on the problem. “Dolly is a diamond in the rough, but Carmello was too sophisticated for the role. Also the music is bold but she is not.” He mentioned both Channing and Ethel Merman as the two who best captured that essence in projecting the larger-than-life character of Dolly to the audience.
But there is a silver lining, according to this theatre veteran. “For those under 40 who never saw Channing in the role, they would be very pleased with this production.” I know it is wearisome for younger people to be told of all the truly great performances they have missed, but truth must be told. For me it has been the same in ballet. I saw Rudolf Nureyev in Romeo and Juliet get a 45-minute standing ovation. Everyone in that audience in London knew they had witnessed the greatest performance of the age and willed the magic to continue by the longest standing ovation I have ever witnessed. I did not go the ballet again for many years, knowing I would be disappointed by anything else I might see.
Despite the misgivings of many in the audience, this production does offer a really fine night of musical Broadway. The handsome Daniel Beeman is ideally cast as Cornelius, the young guy who escapes Yonkers for a taste of city life in New York. His boss, Horace Vandergelder, is portrayed with just the right degree of righteous indignation by John Bolton, whom TV viewers will recognise as Hank Nolan on the CBS show Madam Secretary.
Scenic and costume design by Santo Loquasto is spectacular. A particularly fine set is the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, setting for a first-rate dance routine by the restaurant waiters. This actually got the biggest ovation from the audience, aside from the conclusion of the iconic Hello Dolly musical number. The musical benefits not just from that iconic tune, but others too, including Before the Parade Passes By and It Only Takes a Moment.
For a nostalgic trip to the best of Broadway musicals this is a treat that should not be missed. The large ensemble cast is superb, and the lead singers all have clear voices, so the lovely lyrics can easily be heard. The orchestra is tight and delivers the music impressively. I talked to several people who had never seen Hello Dolly! and they absolutely loved it. This production won 4 Tony Awards, including Best Revival.
Photo: At centre, Bolton and Carmello share an embrace at the end of the show
Hello Dolly! (directed by Jerry Zaks) runs thru Oct. 27 at Centennial Hall in Tucson.
Visit the website for tickets: BroadwayinTucson.com