An entire generation pitching up to this summer’s musical in the park will gasp, “Hey, these songs are from ‘Wall-E.’ ” If that sounds like musical-theater sacrilege, it should be pointed out that London hasn’t seen “Hello, Dolly!” in 25 years. And watching the arrant preposterousness that passes for its book, you can see why. But the zesty choreography and cheery playing of Timothy Sheader’s production bring out the sun in Jerry Herman’s score, even when, as on press night, they’re happily singing in the rain.
You don’t revive “Hello, Dolly!,” you exhume it. Faced with the tension-free period tale of a Yonkers matchmaker with a medal in meddling who fixes to marry a “half-a-millionaire,” no one even considers a radical reinterpretation. So Sheader takes this star vehicle and makes it run by casting virtually every role to impressive strength.
One part dynamo to one part Sophie Tucker, pint-sized, bustling firecracker Samantha Spiro is a Dolly Levi who thinks talking is a competitive sport, and she sure as hell is going to win. But against the odds, warmth beams out of her. She may instantly brandish a business card for every occasion, but Spiro also offers glimpses of Dolly’s longed-for girlish happiness. In lesser hands, that might curdle into cutesiness. Not here.
Leading a number like “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” Spiro transmits real pleasure, riding (literally) on the wit of choreographer Stephen Mear. He amusingly turns the ladies’ parasols and men’s walking canes into train wheels, hat boxes form the engine, and the number is topped off by smoke issuing forth from a stovepipe hat.
Nitpickers observing the title number might reason that if the heroine has been away from the Harmonia Gardens for more than a decade, a few of the waiters would have to have been child labor. But tapping down and back up Peter McKintosh’s double staircase while (shades of Susan Stroman) juggling everything from starched napkins to lobsters, they silence such mundane concerns.
Allan Corduner’s galvanizing gruffness happily makes underwritten Horace more myopic than misanthropic, and pin-sharp Daniel Crossley excavates every last detail from the hitherto less-than-profound role of Cornelius Hackl. Crossley was the former lead dancer of London’s “Fosse,” and his wholly delightful physical precision in the comedy playing is no surprise. But the easy sincerity he brings to his calmly sung “It Only Takes a Moment” is unexpectedly moving; credit there is shared with the woodwind playing in David Shrubsole’s expert orchestrations, which elsewhere make Philip Bateman’s terrific band sound far bigger than its nine players.
As Cornelius’ love interest, Irene, Josefina Gabrielle seizes her moment. In her candy-striped hat store, she grabs the line “All milliners are suspected of being wicked women” and has ever-so-slightly arch fun playing Irene as a lilac-clad vixen. She, too, is an expert dancer (she played both Laurey and Dream Laurey in Trevor Nunn’s “Oklahoma!”), and her pleasure dancing with Crossley’s Hackl is wholly infectious.
By adding individual defining details to his all-wood unit set, McKintosh not only craftily solves the problem of multiple locations but creates particularly speedy transitions between scenes that adds much-needed flow to the book. However, even he and Sheader cannot quite fix the problem of having multiple characters in the restaurant scene, at almost adjacent tables, not seeing one another when all the plots coincide. But farce needs fiercely controlled space, and that’s almost impossible outdoors — a dramatic weakness here along with a couple of overplayed cameos.
But the zing of the production numbers and the happy blending of the lead performances cancel out doubts. Audiences for theater outdoors are notoriously forgiving. Were the show to transfer, expectations and demands would rise in line with the ticket price. Good-hearted fun though Sheader’s production most definitely is, this show and a future West End run might prove a less-than-safe match.