BEVERLY — “Hello, Dolly!,” the musical inspired by Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” has been a valentine to Broadway divas ever since it opened in 1964 with Carol Channing in the title role. But when Lorna Luft, North Shore Music Theatre’s original diva of choice for this production, was sidelined in May by a back injury, it afforded the opportunity for a slightly different approach. It turns out that Luft’s replacement, the capable and confident Broadway veteran Jacquelyn Piro Donovan — unlike many a Dolly — does not hog the spotlight.
In productions that focus on the show-stopping numbers, some of the more wistful moments get short shrift, but here director Charles Repole offers a balance of razzle-dazzle and storytelling. The widow Dolly Levi’s determination to pick up her life again, which is the catalyst for the narrative, gets a little more emphasis, first when Lynnfield native Donovan soliloquizes about it, then in the musical number “Before the Parade Passes By.”
The object of her attention, Horace Vandergelder, the half-millionaire, is played by Broadway star Gary Beach (“The Producers”) with a sense of mischief and some hilarious idiosyncrasies that make his brusque veneer just a showy cover for another vulnerable human being looking for love. As written, Dolly’s pursuit of Vandergelder is a bit crass, but Beach softens the sharper edges of his character so that he’s more appealing, and so that we know he will be more to Dolly than simply a bank account.
But even more than Dolly and Horace’s mixed motivations, Repole turns our attention to the subplot of the frustrated clerk Cornelius Hackl and the lonely hatmaker Irene Molloy. That’s a good choice, since Matt Loehr and Analisa Leaming are outstanding performers, and Leaming’s rendition of “Ribbons Down My Back” nearly steals the show. Loehr’s Act 2 monologue, in which he describes how transformative one moment of love can be, feels straight from the heart, and he and Leaming deliver “It Only Takes a Moment” with unadorned sincerity.
Of course, the tour de force production number marking the return of Dolly Levi to her onetime restaurant haunt still gives the ensemble of waiters a workout — including a crowd-pleasing kick-line — even if the North Shore Music Theatre’s arena stage can’t accommodate the script’s requisite staircase. Choreographer Michael Lichtefeld moves his talented cadre of male dancers through the title number with ease, but he really lets them loose in “The Waiters Gallop,” using every inch of the circular stage to illustrate their frenzied but balletic approach to serving the customers at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant.
The show’s farcical climax, with wallets switched, polka partners spun, arrests made, and characters confronted, gets an energetic boost from the 13-piece orchestra, led by Craig Barna. The comic antics are chaotic, but order is neatly restored with a sense that lots of change is in the air.