Coming off her bravura turn as the title character in “Golda’s Balcony,” Tovah Feldshuh has gone Irish with “Hello, Dolly!” In several interviews, thesp has outlined her intellectualized take on Dolly Gallagher Levi, theorizing that the meddling matchmaker was a refugee from the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. That in a nutshell is the problem with Paper Mill’s new production: Tovah’s Dolly is a hard-working survivor with a brogue, offering little humor, less charm and absolutely no twinkle in the eye.
Feldshuh is a talented performer with roots in the Broadway musical: She starred in “Yentl” in 1975, before Barbra Streisand got her hands on it, and toplined the flop 1979 musical comedy “Sarava.” She can sing, act and tell jokes, but her characterization here drains most of the fun from the role. There’s a fine line between a charming meddler and a harsh busybody, and Feldshuh’s acting exercise falls on the side of the latter.
More disturbingly, a problem of taste intrudes as well. Feldshuh is bound and determined to make this Dolly as non-Jewish as possible. When she quotes her late husband, though, she puts on a thick accent — one presumably unheard in the days of Boss Tweed and President Ulysses S. Grant. Which leaves one to ask: If Thornton Wilder intended Dolly’s late husband to be a Borscht Belt comedian, would he have named him Ephraim?
In the famous dumpling-eating scene, Feldshuh literally stuffs her mouth like a suckling pig in a manner that Dolly, a favorite and revered diner at New York’s finest restaurant, would never do. (Carol Channing did it with an air of comic elegance, without which — as songwriter Jerry Herman cautions — you can never, ever carry it off.) Elsewhere, Feldshuh gags by gagging — that is, responding to someone’s dialogue by “comically” retching. So much for the naturalistic approach.
This matchmaker, in fact, is often more charmless than her resident Vandergelder, giving Walter Charles an unusual set of challenges in the role. We don’t much care whether Dolly gets her man; in fact, all evidence indicates he’d be happier without her.
Jonathan Rayson and Kate Baldwin (as the couple who sing the ballads) and Brian Sears and Jessica-Snow Wilson (as the comedy couple) fare better than the two stars, but Sears is the only person onstage who truly inhabits his part.
The young actor apparently has studied Robert Morse’s rendition of the role in the recently released DVD of “The Matchmaker,” the source material for the tuner. This was an industrious move on the part of Sears. His Barnaby Tucker is awkward, funny and always believable, giving the comedy scenes a much-appreciated lift.
Mark S. Hoebee has done a workmanlike job of the staging, although Feldshuh clearly seems to have been calling the shots. Skeletal but never flimsy scenery by Michael Anania is stylish despite obvious budgetary restrictions.
James Schuette’s costumes, too, are adequate but give every indication of being pulled off the rack. A glaring exception is Dolly’s costume for the first act finale: a black striped dress skirt topped by a white blouse with red cherries (or polka dots?), and about a half-dozen gold doodads dangling from her belt. Before the parade passes by, you think, she’d better change that dress.
Even odder is the choreography from Mia Michaels, a first-timer whose credits include shows with Celine Dion, Madonna and Cirque du Soleil. What we get is the townsfolk of Yonkers, circa 1880, putting on their Sunday clothes while doing leaps out of Alvin Ailey (this with an all-white cast); the waiters at the Harmonia Gardens working pushups into their routine; and a moment in the title number in which the boys surround the star with the sunburst of hands you’ll recognize from Bob Fosse’s “Magic to Do” in “Pippin.”
If ever a number called for unison dancing, “Hello, Dolly” is it. Here, the boys comport themselves like frenetic ants, with occasional Fosse-like shoulder slinks. Let it be added that the waiters are supposed to recognize Dolly from “those good old days,” but all but one of them look like they must have been in diapers when Dolly last came down the staircase.
Paper Mill has added “Love, Look in My Window” — one of the songs inserted for Ethel Merman when she joined the original production — but puts it in the wrong slot, giving Dolly a melancholy solo too early in the story. There are also occasional lines that don’t seem to be from Michael Stewart’s script, and they are not improvements.
All in all, we are consigned to watch in disappointment as Herman and Stewart’s 1964 musical — an irrepressible marvel and a solidly workable example of showmanship — is thrown further and further off-base.
“Dolly” has been away from Broadway for almost as long as its namesake has been missing from the Harmonia Gardens. What had been a perennial Broadway attraction for 30 years, with the original seven-year run plus three revivals (two with Channing, one with Pearl Bailey), has been absent for more than a decade. While “Hello, Dolly!” surely will make it back to the Broadway stage, the leading lady needs to be infinitely more lovable than the one in the Paper Mill’s styleless rendition.