By the time Dolly (Nancy Opel) sings the lyrics "I hear that choo-choo callin' me on, on board that happiness express" in the penultimate number of Ford's Theatre Society and Signature Theatre's impeccably charming production of Hello, Dolly!, the audience will feel as though a promise has been fulfilled. Ford's historic stage has been transformed by scenic designer Adam Koch into a grand but welcoming train station, and the audience enters the space to a beautiful bit of sound design by David Bundries that makes us imagine trains are arriving and departing just out of sight. The pre-show experience promises transportation, and the production delivers on this so thoroughly that it is difficult to disembark and return to real life after the final bows have been taken.
The canonical musical follows the exploits of Dolly Levi, a matchmaker who decides that she will conspire to marry a curmudgeonly Yonkers "half-millionaire" who has hired her to find a suitable bride. As she plots to improve her own lot in life, Dolly also elevates the prospects of the delightful cast of characters who surround her. Director Eric Schaeffer has claimed that he has wanted to direct Hello, Dolly! ever since playing Barnaby Tucker in the 10th grade, and it could not be clearer that this production is a labor of intense love.
Broadway veteran Nancy Opel gives a virtuoso performance as Dolly, and is the living, breathing heart of this production. Throughout the show, her character gives out perfectly tailored business cards ("thirty-three-year-old chief clerks taught how to dance"), and Opel's specific performance contains a similar kind of magic.
The rest of the cast is also delightful. D.C. favorite Edward Gero artfully manages to find heart in the stingy Horace Vandergelder, and Tracy Lynn Olivera's performance (as Irene Molloy) of "Ribbons Down My Back" is sultry and gorgeous. Carolyn Cole's Ermengarde had me dissolving into fits of giggles every time she appeared on stage and Zack Colonna's embodiment of Barnaby Tucker is an object lesson in comic physicality.
There is a fine line between design that is fantastical and that which is cartoonish, and Wade Laboissonniere's whimsical costumes find the right balance between the two. The intimacy the characters find with the audience in the vast station is due in good part to the lighting design of Colin K. Bills. He manages to transport us to different locations without necessitating any major set changes. The design, like the rest of the production, manages to wink at the audience without ever crossing over into mugging.
The optimism and hope inherent in this classic piece are especially poignant in the particular space in which it is being performed. Hello, Dolly! recognizes its characters and the world at large as flawed but nonetheless doggedly believes in the ultimate goodness of people and the promise of change. All aboard the happiness express, indeed.