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Hello, Dolly!

Tovah Feldshuh is a tad too conscientious -- and extremely Irish -- in the Paper Mill Playhouse's uneven revival of the classic, crowd-pleasing Jerry Herman musical.

Tovah Feldshuh and company in Hello, Dolly!
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Dolly Levi was always the first to point out that she was "born Gallagher" -- and boy, does Tovah Feldshuh take that heritage and run with it as the beloved matchmaker in the Paper Mill Playhouse's uneven revival of Hello, Dolly! Indeed, Feldshuh sports an Irish accent thicker than a Carnegie Deli corned beef sandwich, lapsing into a similarly vaudevillian Yiddish shtick only when quoting her late husband, Ephraim Levi. (Imagine Barry Fitzgerald as Dolly Levi and you'll get the idea.)

But, as if to shrink back from the broad brogue, Feldshuh delivers her lines hurriedly and flatly. She's a woman who arranges things -- businesslike, deadpan, and so calm that we never locate this Dolly's desperate need to "rejoin the human race." As if to compensate for her Jack Webb-like verbal dryness, Feldshuh supplies jagged line and lyric rhythms -- e.g., "Some people paint, some sew, I [interminable pause] meddle" -- that keep you listening. And for all the verbal flatness, her body language is all over the place as she gesticulates and flails. I've never seen a Dolly so preoccupied and conscientious. Feldshuh's Dolly is a thinker, a worrier, and, yes, a meddler. What she isn't is a life force, and that is the one thing any Dolly must be.

The role allows for a lot of interpretation: Carol Channing, the original, was a lovable freak, while Pearl Bailey was an earth mother, bountiful and glowing. Without the yearning, there's no Dolly and no Dolly. Our heroine is a crafty, self-sufficient woman who traded intimacy for safety and predictability, but now wants to end not only her own loneliness but everyone else's. Feldshuh never conveys Dolly's needfulness -- even the famous oak-leaf monologue leading into "Before the Parade Passes By" is delivered as reportage -- and that robs this production of much of its thrust.

What's left is a large and amiable situation comedy with several two-dimensional romances, some pretty stage pictures, and any number of wonderful Jerry Herman show tunes, more than half of them about wanting to "live, live, live!" Subtlety was never this score's strength, and that goes double for Michael Stewart's book, boisterously adapted from Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker. Most of the characters have only one emotion to flog. Dolly's unknowing intended, the dry goods tycoon Horace Vandergelder (Walter Charles), is gruff. His chief clerk, Cornelius Hackl (Jonathan Rayson), craves adventure. The widow Irene Molloy (a very appealing Kate Baldwin, who sings a sumptuous "Ribbons Down My Back") wants to escape the millinery business and learn to love again. Clank, clank go the stage mechanics and plot turns, pausing frequently for production numbers, until the four central couples are properly joined; but the original direction and choreography, by Gower Champion, were so expert that you never heard the clanks.

This production's director, Mark S. Hoebee, and choreographer, Mia Michaels, seem to have consciously deviated from the Champion blueprint -- at their own peril. Aside from some intricate blocking in the hat shop scene, Hoebee's staging is basic, with too much audience-hectoring onstage laughter and so much downstage, out-front line delivery that characters spend whole scenes barely noticing one another. Michaels's choreography is inventive and expansive for "Dancing," but the "Waiters' Gallop" is a disorganized free-for-all, a random series of unrelated gags that stubbornly refuse to gather momentum. The title song begins, inevitably, with Feldshuh descending that staircase and contains the expected duck-walking waiters and the parade around a runway that is otherwise hardly used here. But it also has the waiters leaning on each other's backs in bizarre groupings and waving their gloved palms, Fosse-style. This may be the number's gayest staging ever -- and that's saying something!

Hit-or-miss seems to describe every aspect of this Dolly. Both Michael Anania's sets and James Schuette's costumes are eyefuls, but the former are pastel while the latter have a clashing primary-color palette; it's as if the two designers never talked to each other. As for the actors, Charles sings superbly as always; but he's never a lovable curmudgeon, just a scowling, charmless misanthrope. Rayson is such a bland Cornelius that Baldwin's nuanced, whimsical Irene seems altogether too good for him. Brian Sears is somewhat better as his sidekick, Barnaby, while Jessica Snow Wilson, as Minnie Fay, gives her lines a goofy spin that makes this role less tiresome than usual. A sizable chorus kicks up its heels capably, and Tom Helm conducts Paper Mill's ample orchestra with reasonable cast-album fidelity.

Feldshuh sings throatily and well, save for some tentative high notes and uncomfortable register shifts. She is rewarded with an extra song, "Love, Look in My Window," which was introduced by Ethel Merman, the last Broadway Dolly during the original run. The song says virtually the same thing as "Before the Parade Passes By," but it's a beauty -- the sort of thing Jerry Herman used to write better than anybody. And even in a production with as many miscalculations as this one, the songs get you grinning and humming and toe-tapping. This Dolly may be more than a little lumpy; but, thanks to Jerry Herman, it rings.