HEEEEERE'S DOLLY! Huffman raises the roof.
Hello, Dolly! is an ever-popular musical standard that usually wins audiences over when its flamboyant title character earns her exclamation point. Unfortunately, despite having a Dolly that could charm the whistle off a traffic cop, the current hyperventilating Theater by the Sea production (through July 11) very soon runs out of oxygen.
The engaging tale has evolved. There was Thornton Wilder's The Merchant of Yonkers in 1938 and his 1995 redo, The Matchmaker. As the informative Matunuck program tells us, Wilder stole the idea from the 1842 play Einen Jux will er sich machen (He Wants to Go Off On a Spree) by Austrian Johann Nestroy, who stole it from the 1835 English play A Day Well Spent, by John Oxenford. The theme probably could be traced to Adam hearing a loud voice boom, "Have I got a girl for you!"
In 1964, Hello, Dolly! came to Broadway, with book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, sticking to Wilder's characters and most of his dialogue. It won 10 of its 11 Tony Award nominations and set a duration record on Broadway. The show starred the inimitable, gravel-voiced Carol Channing in the role of her career. (When she reprised it on tour at age 73, her 1995 performance in Providence showed that she still owned the role lock, stock, and chutzpah.) In 1969, Barbra Streisand playing Dolly in the film instead of Channing was like Nemo getting the title role in Free Willy instead of Namu, the Killer Whale.
Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi (Cady Huffman) is a matchmaker, a professional meddler, as she brags. This is a particularly useful skill in the 1890 New York City of the setting, when a gentleman never addresses a young woman un-introduced unless she is a hooker. (The misunderstanding does, in fact, pop up in the musical.) Dolly has been commissioned to find a wife for "well-known Yonkers half-millionaire" and feed store proprietor Horace Vandergelder (Al Bundonis). Tired of living hand-to-mouth — she distributes business cards for her various offerings, such as mandolin lessons — Dolly decides to sabotage his other prospects and married him herself.
As he goes a-courting in Manhattan, a subplot develops in which his two overworked clerks, Cornelius Hackl (Jason Ostrowski) and his nervous sidekick Barnaby Tucker (Jake Bridges), play hooky and go to town to have an adventure. Needless to say, they end up avoiding Vandergelder discovering them. One of Vandergelder's marital prospects is widowed hatmaker Irene Molloy (Rebecca Barko), whom Cornelius falls for, as Barnaby does with her shop helper Minnie Fay (Kelly Kantner). Everything culminates at a swanky restaurant in act two, where the two clerks and their boss, unbeknownst to them at first, have taken their romantic prospects, and Dolly succeeds in impressing Vandergelder.
Huffman is a terrific Dolly, with enough sassy charisma to bend a park statue to her will. She belts out the show-stopping "Hello, Dolly" — one of the few memorable songs in the show — with style and well-tuned pipes. Bundonis gives good curmudgeon, especially when exasperated, and the supporting actors do their heavy lifting without apparent backaches. The troupe also does well with the production number accompanying the song "Dancing," though the choreography has been simplified for an ensemble who are actors more than dancers.