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The Matchmaker

The Goodman Theatre dusts off an American classic.

Kristine Nielsen (Dolly Gallagher Levi) and Allen Gilmore (Horace Vandergelder) in Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, directed by Henry Wishcamper, at the Goodman Theatre.
(© Liz Lauren)

Rom-coms from Annie Hall to Bridget Jones owe a debt to Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker. Penned in the 1930s and set in the 1880s, the play is a foundational pillar in terms of pop-culture ubiquity. Wilder's play was also the inspiration for the iconic musical Hello, Dolly!

With a lavish, impeccably cast staging of the classic, the Goodman Theatre bids audiences to say hello to an irrepressible and charismatic Dolly (Kristine Nielsen). As the fast-talking charmer with a heart of gold works her wiles on mega-rich sourpuss Horace Vandergelder (Allen Gilmore), The Matchmaker spins a familiar redemption story that has the potential to be corny, but ends up being an endearing romp rich with hilariously executed slapstick and genuine emotion, thanks to director Henry Wishcamper.

The well-worn plot follows Yonkers feed shop owner Horace's transformation from a selfish, sexist curmudgeon to a convivial, generous, much-admired gentleman. The architect of his change is, of course, Dolly, who announces in the first scene that she'll marry Horace before the week is out. The production doesn't hinge on whether Horace will evolve from money-grubbing killjoy to beloved philanthropist — that's a given. The great fun of the show is watching how Dolly makes the change happen.

Much of that fun is tangled up in the subplots. Dolly's machinations also bring romance to Horace's underpaid, overworked clerks Barnaby (Behzad Dabu) and Cornelius (Postell Pringle), as they play hooky from the store and search for adventure and love in Manhattan. Then there is Horace's weepy niece Ermengarde (Theo Allyn), who is desperately in love with the artist Ambrose Kemper (Ranobir Lahiri). Never mind that Ambrose also loves Ermengarde: Horace has forbidden their union on account of Ambrose being a good-for-nothing artist.

Finally, there's the widow Irene Molloy (Elizabeth Ledo). The spirited yet lonely proprietor of a haberdashery, she's fed up with behaving respectably. When Barnaby and Cornelius show up in her shop, she decides to throw caution to the wind. With her assistant Minnie (Sydney Germaine) in tow, Irene embraces the wicked woman within and goes out to a restaurant in public with the gentlemen.

Wilder moves the action from Horace's emporium in Yonkers to a trio of Manhattan locales from Irene's hat shop, to the elegant Harmonia Gardens café and the exotically appointed apartment of one Flora Van Huysen (Marilyn Dodds Frank).

Thornton works Molière-worthy farcical elements into the plot, and Wishcamper's cast executes the highly physical comedy with infectious energy and exquisite timing. All the characters repeatedly wind up in the same place at the same time, necessitating all manner of shenanigans involving cross-dressing as well as strategically placed screens, closets, and table cloths.

Nielsen's Dolly is a powerhouse without being overpowering. Quick-witted, ever upbeat and never in doubt that she'll achieve her goals, Nielsen's Dolly is the force of nature you'd expect from the iconic role. With the mere arch of an eyebrow or shrug of the shoulders, she delivers a personality with the force of a whirlwind. That she makes it look easy speaks to the skill Nielsen brings to the stage.

As Horace, Gilmore is also fantastic. You all but see the black clouds that Horace brings everywhere he goes in the early scenes, glowering like a bear and passing judgment on the poor and the foolish. Gilmore's blustering turn highlights the hubris in Horace. Gilmore embraces the comedy inherent in the man's glaring faults with gusto. When his transformation finally comes, it's sweet indeed.

Wishcamper's supporting casts is an embarrassment of riches. Postell's Cornelius has you cheering from the moment he pops his head up onstage.

As assistant clerk Barnaby, Dabu will knock your socks off with the nimble athleticism he brings to the stage. And Ledo brings a perfect blend of gumption and sadness to the widow Irene.

Frank is also memorable as Flora, Horace's relative (just how they're connected is never specified). Frank has a voice like velvet, and that is perfect for the role. Finally, there's Marc Grapey as Malachi Stack, a shady opportunist who delivers a soliloquy on morality that is one of the show's high points.

The Matchmaker is marked throughout with soliloquies as the characters hold forth on love and life, and money. Wishcamper amps up the power of these interludes by subtly changing David Lander's lighting, slowly isolating each speaker in a spotlight. The effect is a show where raucous comedy is powerfully punctuated by intensely contemplative moments.

Wishcamper also infuses the play with period music. Actors play guitars, lutes, keyboards, and sitars. Though The Matchmaker isn't a musical, Wishcamper's incorporation of music as a key component furthers the story and makes the production all the more impactful. Set designer Neil Patel creates an elegant, detailed version of New York City, framing the stage with metal scaffolding reminiscent of the Brooklyn Bridge. For Flora's apartment, Patel fills the stage with velvet settees and cartoon-colorful painted backdrops that are part bordello and part opium den. Costume designer Jenny Mannis' elaborate period frocks are gorgeous, from Dolly's fire-engine red skirt to the hat-and-gloves upper-crust elegance that helps define Horace's rooster-like preening.

The Matchmaker is a play that's bursting with heart and laughter. You may know the happily-ever-outcome of the story going in, but the stakes of The Matchmaker are real and high under Wishcamper's direction. And when everybody onstage bursts into a final song, you may well find yourself feeling the glow.

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