Carol Channing rode back into town Oct. 19 on that most reliable vehicle, “Hello, Dolly!,” the 1964 powerhouse that transformed her overnight from mere star — which she had become 15 years earlier with “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”– to Broadway legend. Channing has played other roles in a long and varied career, but it’s Dolly Gallagher Levi, meddler nonpareil, that the fans want to see, and she reputedly has obliged them some 4,500 times. It would be churlish to suggest that she has been rewarded with any fewer than 4,500 standing ovations in return for her efforts.
Channing certainly is winning them over again at the Lunt-Fontanne, where Dolly’s Act 2 entrance down the staircase into the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant is a razzle-dazzle throwback to a Broadway that no longer exists. Norma Desmond’s descent down a much fancier staircase two blocks and several million dollars away doesn’t pack half the emotional wallop.
“Dolly” will click here, partly because it’s already made more money on the road than Rockefeller, and partly because discount tickets will make it easy for plenty of youngsters and tourists to see theater royalty up close.
How much its success has to do with Channing, who at 74 is still up there giving her all for the crowd, and how much of it has to do with the way she puts over a handful of songs that are as familiar as breathing, I can’t say. I arrived at a critics’ preview a “Dolly!” virgin, having avoided the original show, the revivals and the 1969 movie (whose star, “Funny Girl” Barbra Streisand , Channing had edged out for the ’64 Tony Award). The closest I’d ever come before to “Hello, Dolly!” was Tom Stoppard’s delightful adaptation of the same material for his play “On the Razzle.”
“Dolly,” according to Hobe Morrison’s Variety review of the original, was adapted by book writer Michael Stewart from Thornton Wilder’s 1955 “The Matchmaker,” a reworking of his 1938 flop, “The Merchant of Yonkers.” (Wilder’s take, during the first two years of the “Hello, Dolly!” run, was over $ 207,000 — 17 times the rest of his earnings.) All of the versions, including the Stoppard, put new spins on Viennese Johann Nestroy’s 1842 “Einen Jux Will er Sich Machen” (“He Will Be the Devil of a Fellow”), which was itself an adaptation of John Oxenford’s “A Day Well Spent,” presented in London in 1835.
The current “Dolly!” only looks like it’s been touring since it debuted in 1835. Lee Roy Reams’ mechanical, pedestrian staging and choreography are no homage to Gower Champion, whose work on the original garnered nearly as much acclaim as Channing’s. The Oliver Smith touring sets are skimpy, to say the least, and ill-fitted to the Lunt-Fontanne stage. Jonathan Bixby’s costumes are meant to be comic odes to period dress, but they’re hideous instead, a mishmash of styles and colors that all offend the eye. Blame Peter Fitzgerald’s headache-inducing sound design for making a 24-piece orchestra seem as though filtered through a 1964 transistor radio.
Nevertheless, Channing has an endearing foil in Jay Garner’s jowly, blustery Horace Vandergelder, the Yonkers “half-millionaire” Dolly has set her sights on. Some of the other casting is good as well, particularly Florence Lacey as the hat maker Irene Molloy, whose “Ribbons Down My Back” is unexpectedly moving, and Michael DeVries as Vandergelder’s put-upon lieutenant, Cornelius Hackl.
As for Channing herself, she embraces the audience and the audience embraces right back. She is slighter, her voice even huskier, than one expected, but she is also adorable, in an extraterrestrial sort of way.
In his program bio, Jerry Herman says he “believes in writing melodic songs that have lives of their own outside the show,” and that certainly seems to have been true of “Dolly!”– though not necessarily in the way Herman implies: While he gets sole credit for the score, Herman paid a $ 275,000 settlement to Mack David, author of a 1948 pop hit, “Sunflower,” which bore more than a passing resemblance to the title song, according to historian Steven Suskin.
The show also benefited from the input of Bob Merrill, who wrote the lyrics (which Herman revised) to “Motherhood” and “Elegance,” and from the team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who wrote the Act 1 closer, “Before the Parade Passes By,” which Herman rewrote, retaining the title. And among the themes from “Dolly!” later recycled to better effect, the one that stands out most is “It Takes a Woman,” which would resurface two years later in “Mame’s””We Need a Little Christmas.”
“Reasonably melodic tunes and agreeably uncomplicated lyrics” was how Hobe Morrison described them in these pages nearly 32 years ago, and even that was being generous. “Hello, Dolly!” the show was never as special as “Hello, Dolly!” the vehicle. When all those waiters welcome Dolly home to the Harmonia Gardens, even a virgin experiences a comforting thrill at the sight of Channing, a gash of scarlet with feathers. It’s so nice to have you back where you belong.