Certain products of Western civilization exist beyond criticism and the ravages of time: Grant’s Tomb, the Hollywood sign , Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly!” The current manifestation of the last-named artifact, on tour and en route to a Broadway opening slated for October, even drops the connecting “in” in all the publicity, rendering “Carol Channing “Hello , Dolly!” into an inseparable unit. Well it might; Channing seems to have swallowed play and music whole, reducing their already minuscule proportions to a series of minor nuisances within the continuous panorama of her own larger-than-life flamboyant romp.
Not all that much has changed, actually, over the 31-year, 3,000-plus performance run of Channing/Dolly. Her voice, never what you’d call an instrument of bel canto, has dropped to an octave below laryngitis; her usable melodic equipment has shrunk from three identifiable notes to two.
The euphoria that pours off her stage in lava-like proportions is, more than anything, her own sheer delight in being Carol Channing; the tinkling, music-box trivialities of Jerry Herman’s score and lyrics serve merely to prop up that single phenomenon.
Others have tried their hand and lungs at the title role over the years, including the formidable Barbra Streisand in the ill-considered film version; they were not Carol Channing.
The big new revival is a handsome job all around, a rollicking memento of a time when producers of musicals could afford a 32-member chorus line and stage tricks including a steam locomotive and a dancing horse.
Oliver Smith’s marvelous original sets have been nicely reproduced; Lee Roy Reams’ restaging of Gower Champion’s pristine choreography still sends waiters tumbling across the stage with duelling shishkebabs; Dolly still manages five changes of Jonathan Bixby’s poster-colored costumes, and the staircase number for the show’s title song still evokes waves of adulation out front.
More than anything else, “Channing/Dolly” is a love feast, unabashed, head-on yet G-rated.
Channing endures; at 74, her performance is about itself, nothing more. That all works, because there isn’t much else to “Hello, Dolly!” The plot, dimly related to Thornton Wilder’s charming comedy (itself adapted from a centuries-old Viennese farce), simply dissolves into sentimental goo after the big title number; subsidiary characters are creatures of the sketchpad.
But nobody goes to a “Dolly” performance for the storyline, or the subsidiary characters. What they do go for is there, in marvelous shape and profusion. “Look at the old girl now,” goes one of the lyrics. Look at the old girl now.