‘Hello, Dolly!’ Kicks Off Summer of Kennedy Center Musicals

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Betty Buckley stars in the touring production of "Hello, Dolly!" Photo by Julieta Cervantes. Courtesy Kennedy Center.

Well, hello again, Dolly!

Dolly (Gallagher) Levi, the inveterate multitasker, matchmaker, busybody and eternal optimist from turn-of-the-century New York, is indeed back in town.

As embodied — and that’s the right word — by Broadway legend Betty Buckley, she’s settled in at the Kennedy Center Opera House through July 7 in a new production of “Hello, Dolly!” directed with energy and pizzazz by veteran Jerry Zaks, arriving in a blaze of old and new glory, including four Tony Awards (Best Revival of a Musical among them) in 2017.

This production — which has already starred Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters on Broadway — kicks off a summer of Kennedy Center musicals that pretty much covers the world of American musicals in terms of its range, diversity, joys and conundrums. There’s the Lincoln Center Theater production of “Falsettos” from June 11 to 23, the original and brand-new “The Band’s Visit” from July 9 to Aug. 4, “Aladdin” (by way of Disney) from July 18 to Sept. 7 and “Dear Evan Hansen” from Aug. 6 to Sept. 8.

Based on Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” “Hello, Dolly!” brings with it a trail of serendipity, including the persona of Buckley, a classic Broadway star, meshing with the part of Dolly perfectly, following in a tradition that goes back to the show’s opening in 1965.

It just so happened that the Dolly, the role’s originator — and still singular memory by dint of having performed the role hundreds of times over the years — Carol Channing, passed away this year. You could say that Channing owned the part, except that quite a few marquee-sized names borrowed it for a time in revivals: Debbie Reynolds, Pearl Bailey and, most recently, Midler and Peters and now Buckley.

There’s a sweet connection in that “Cats,” which Buckley quite literally made memorable for her rendition of “Memories” as Grizabella the Glamour Cat in the original 1982 Broadway production, will be part of the 2019-20 Kennedy Center season.

Buckley, who also starred in “Sunset Boulevard,” brings an inherent human kindness to the part. She dominates the stage with a warm, strong voice, charm and comedic timing, all qualities that serve her well while being surrounded by a barrage of electric waiters, promenading couples, dancers and Olde New York types, some of them by way of Yonkers. She’s a soft-shoe hoofer, but a stronghearted character, who makes it her business to connect directly with the audience.

She is also an example of the kind of performer known as a diva, an original-beyond-category, who comes alive onstage as only a diva can, live and in person, a quality few performers can sustain.

The presence of “Dolly!” always brings to the surface a discussion of the history and future of the American musical. One producer put it simply: the idea is to get butts in the seats. That often means musicals, a reality that all theater companies and institutions, big and small, rally around. Many times, it means old musicals resurrected and revived. This has happened at Arena Stage, where Molly Smith embarked on an exploration of the American musical, and it has happened at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and at Signature Theatre, where new musicals and the works of Stephen Sondheim reign.

The clear answer is that: if it’s good, they will come. Witness such socially conscious musical plays like “Evan Hansen” and “Next to Normal,” not to mention “Hamilton,” which erupted like a rap explosion and drew people who never listened to rap until that show came along to explain the American Revolution.

“Dolly!” belongs in a familiar Broadway musical tradition, the works of great composers and showmen like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe and, in this case, Jerry Herman, who wrote music for outsized characters such as Dolly, Mame and Albin in “La Cage aux Folles.”

In this case, too, you get what you pay for, which is often plenty. The stylish New York of yesteryear with its chandeliered restaurants, its dish-tossing, acrobatic waiters, its hustle and bustles and carriages and electricity — sometimes fueled by nothing but wisecracks and dreams.

You can also see just how difficult it is to put together a show like this, where nothing, least of all spending, is spared. There are wonderful songs, to be sure: “Before the Parade Passes By” (Mrs. Levi’s anthem), “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “Ribbons Down My Back,” “Elegance,” “It Only Takes a Moment” and, of course, “Hello, Dolly!”

Buckley is the solid ground of this production. Playing an assured manipulator, a deft dealmaker, a woman who knows what she wants and what you want, her presence lets everyone else shine. The idea, besides ensnaring or snaring wannabe tycoon Horace Vandergelder, is to get the right couples together.

All of the performers here are young, dashing, lovely, spirited, funny and convincing — especially the rubber-bodied ghost of Donald O’Connor, Sean Burns, as Barnaby; Colin LeMoine as Ambrose; Kristen Hahn as Minnie Fay; and the delightfully tart and brave Analisa Leaming as Irene Molloy.

As Vandergelder, veteran performer Lewis Stadler gets to sing a paean to penny capitalism and make a fool of himself in grumpy, grand style.

No worries. It ends as a kind of old-fashioned but also spanking-new show does and should: happily, with everybody being where they should be, with whom they should be.

And, as she should, Buckley has them out of their seats even before she takes her first bow.

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