Tony Nominee Kristine Nielsen and Dolly Gallagher Levi: A Matchmaker Made in Heaven

Broadway’s ”Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” star is saying “Hello” to Thornton Wilder’s Dolly at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

After receiving her bachelor's degree from Northwestern University, actress Kristine Nielsen embarked on a successful East Coast acting career that left her no time to look back toward the Midwest — until now. When Chicago's Goodman Theatre approached the Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Tony nominee about starring in their production of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, it was an offer she felt she couldn't refuse.

"I had to grab the chance to do it because I think it's such a wonderful play," Nielsen told TheaterMania, "so I totally said, 'All right, well, I don't want to get too old so I can't do some of the farce — I better get out there.'"

For Nielsen, who doesn't consider herself much of a singer, it's a rare opportunity to take on a seminal musical-theater role without having to hit a single note. The Matchmaker serves as the source material for Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's beloved musical Hello, Dolly!, and Nielsen will be playing Dolly, the iconic heroine of both the play and the musical.

Kristine Nielsen as Dolly Gallagher Levi.
Kristine Nielsen as Dolly Gallagher Levi.
(courtesy of the theater)

What's it like being back in Chicago?
It's quite vibrant and kind of wonderful. I remember it as a more forbidding city, in a sense. So it's really interesting to come back. It's like my own little frightening memory lane. Or memory highway, I guess, out here. I'm waiting for the river to be dyed green, that will really bring back memories.

How does The Matchmaker differ from Hello, Dolly!?
There are some darker threads in the Thornton Wilder. And it's more eccentric in many ways. In The Matchmaker, there's another character that comes in as sort of a deus ex machina, in her old wonderful, eccentric, fabulous way, that sort of ties it all together with everybody.

[And] what's a joy in this, maybe it's a little bit of my Northwestern roots coming through, is that it's such a company and there's a chance for everyone. Mr. Vandergelder has an address to the audience, and Cornelius has [a] fabulous address, you know, "I'll be a ditch-digger who once had a wonderful day." There's so many wonderful chances for the other characters to kind of explode and have their relationship with the audience. And I love that. I love that kind of fabric.

Tell me about your cast.
I'm very happy to say this is a very representative cast and that was exciting to me. That was a really big plus. Not to jump on the whole Oscar thing, but I do think it's important. I want people to see themselves on the stage. I don't want them to go and see museum pieces. It's not interesting.

Marc Grapey (Malachi Stack), Allen Gilmore (Horace Vandergelder), Kristine Nielsen (Dolly Levi), Ronobir Lahiri (Ambrose), and Theo Allyn (Ermengarde)  rehearse Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, directed by Henry Wishcamper
Marc Grapey (Malachi Stack), Allen Gilmore (Horace Vandergelder), Kristine Nielsen (Dolly Levi), Ronobir Lahiri (Ambrose), and Theo Allyn (Ermengarde) rehearse Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, directed by Henry Wishcamper
(© Liz Lauren)

What have you learned about the character of Dolly?
I think she's an optimistic survivor. She's surviving but she finds life fun as opposed to dark and dreary. I think she wants to find the best of humanity. She has such a gift and she touches people's lives and opens doors for [them]. I think she's like a breath of air, she's so happy. It's a stuffier time and women are more constricted, and she's an exception to that.

How do you feel your Dolly compares with other iconic Dollys?
I have a good sense of humor about it. And I think it's based in a real loss, which is, you know, her husband. I think there was a great love there — she references Ephraim Levi quite a lot. And I love that kind of poignancy in her, that there's a little note of sadness in the midst of it all. But she takes it, absorbs it, and it's a part of her. It's not a negative, it's just what life is. And I think that's what I can bring.

Would you ever reprise the role in a production of Hello, Dolly!?
I wish I could. [But] I can tell you right now if I talk to a musical director, he'd tell me there's not a hope in hell of that. We had a run through today, and I took them right down the rabbit hole with my version of "East Side, West Side" and every note was a different key. And I love musicals. I'm actually going to do a workshop of a musical this year in New York, I'm very excited about it, it's a spaghetti western. It's a door that I don't want to be afraid of as an actor and I want to go through. But I don't have to be in the chorus. They used to have people who come in and do a character number, and I would love to do that. But now they require you to fill it out so that there's a bigger sound. So that's why you probably won't see me in Hello, Dolly!

Having also recently starred on Broadway in Vanya and Sonia and You Can't Take It With You, how do you feel about all your success as a comic actress?
I think if you can laugh at someone, you'll listen to them more. They're not lecturing you and they're not presenting you with something that you're like, "Oh I don't want to face that today." Usually you can seduce somebody a bit of laughter. It's what I wish there was more of in this world. Right now we're very angry, and I think laughter can cure a lot of things.

Kristine Nielsen (Dolly Levi) and Theo Allyn (Ermengarde) in rehearsal for The Matchmaker.
Kristine Nielsen (Dolly Levi) and Theo Allyn (Ermengarde) in rehearsal for The Matchmaker.
(© Liz Lauren)

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The Matchmaker

Closed: April 10, 2016