In the case of “Hello, Dolly!,” familiarity breeds delight.
After all, how many times have you heard an audience cheer at the overture? The inspiration for this enthusiasm, even before legendary diva Betty Buckley sashays onstage, is the lush Broadway revival, which stops at the Opera House through Aug. 25 under the auspices of Broadway in Boston.
“Hello, Dolly!” represents one of the pinnacles of book musicals, combining smart, snappy dialogue by Michael Stewart (based on the play “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder) and the music and lyrics of Jerry Herman (“Mame,” “La Cage aux Folles”). This musical is so tightly scripted, it seems perfectly natural for characters to shift effortlessly from conversation to song. While some gentle morals are sprinkled through the story — “Money is like manure, it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow” — the focus is on an escapist adventure wound up like a top and then spun out across some wild slapstick comedy and marvelous production numbers.
At the center of the story is Dolly Levi (Buckley), a widow who has been living from hand-to-mouth as a matchmaker and consultant on almost any topic (see her array of business cards). Her decision to rejoin life may have the goal of marriage to the Yonkers “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (Lewis J. Stadlen) but her motives are only a little self-serving. On the way to the altar, she also eliminates barriers to Horace’s niece Ermengarde’s (Morgan Kirner) marriage to the artist Ambrose Kemper (Colin LeMoine) and helps Vandergelder’s long-suffering employees Cornelius Hackl (Nic Rouleau) and Barnaby Tucker (Sean Burns) find love, respectively, with Irene Molloy (Analisa Leaming) and her assistant Minnie Fay (Kristen Hahn).
Buckley can win over the audience simply by stopping and turning on her high-wattage smile; she has that kind of star power. One of the great rewards of live theater is feeling the entire audience lean forward and listen, as they did at Wednesday’s performance when they anticipated Buckley’s next move. She plays Dolly like a loving puppetmaster, full of mischief and schemes, while dedicated to making sure other people find happiness. She draws us skillfully through the opening “I Put My Hand In,” through the life-affirming “Before the Parade Passes By,” to the razzle-dazzle of the title number, and the feisty “So Long Dearie.” And as a performer whose played everyone from Grizabella in “Cats” to Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” she is remarkably generous, allowing every member of this touring company to shine brightly around her.
Of course, she is in great company playing opposite Stadlen, another Broadway legend, who not only fits the role of the curmudgeonly Horace Vandergelder like a glove, but whose gift for comic timing is worth the price of admission. He makes the addition of “Penny in My Pocket,” cut from the original 1964 production, a clever top-of-Act-Two addition.
Director Jerry Zaks is a master of split-second timing, making swift transitions from scene to song and from setting to setting without it ever feeling rushed. His collaboration with choreographer Warren Carlyle for “The Waiters’ Gallop” incorporates spinning mops and napkins as well as trays, piles of plates, and rolling dessert carts, not to mention kick lines and banister slides.
The rest of Carlyle’s choreography is crisp rather than complicated, which allows the emphasis to remain on the Santo Loquasto’s breathtaking pastel-color combinations for the costumes. Those colors pop under Natasha Katz’s vivid lighting and Loquasto’s sepia-toned New York backdrops and the comfortably cluttered, multi-tiered set of Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed Store.
What is perhaps most notable in this exuberant touring revival is that with Buckley in the title role, “Hello, Dolly!” exudes an unexpected balance between broad, raucous comedy and a sweet reminder to enjoy every moment. This revival makes eminently clear why “Hello, Dolly!” remains a classic.
Book by Michael Stewart, based on “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Choreography by Warren Carlyle. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Presented by Broadway in Boston. At the Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston, through Aug. 25. Tickets from $44.50, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayInBoston.com
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.