If you thought the Muse Machine pulled out the stops last year with Hairspray, wait until you get a load of its equally enthusiastic and marvelous production of composer Jerry Herman and librettist Michael Stewart’s 1964 Tony Award-winning classic Hello, Dolly!, the arts education organization’s 34th annual student musical continuing through Sunday, Jan. 14 at the Victoria Theatre.
It is customary for this feel-good show to specifically spotlight the inherent charm, quick wit and gleeful mischief of one beloved woman who has the pleasure of being serenaded by a throng of overjoyed waiters. However, the Muse universe rightfully abides by a different pedigree. In fact, over 170 students from across the Miami Valley have cohesively united to bring the entire musical comedy genius of the material to life with a refreshing level of ensemble-friendly, production-savvy magic. By and large, the Muse’s Dolly! concerns the journey of a woman who is more of a catalyst than a centerpiece. It’s a departure from the norm, especially if you saw the current Broadway revival starring Bette Midler, but you wouldn’t want it any other way within the spirited context of what the Muse does best.
Based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker and set in 1890s New York, this tale is an engaging account of widow Dolly Gallagher Levi, the most celebrated matchmaker in New York City. Although she already paired wealthy Yonkers businessman Horace Vandergelder with lovely Manhattan milliner Irene Molloy, Dolly actually has her eyes and pocketbook set on Horace. Using her meddlesome skills to the utmost with sly instinct and skillful improvisation, she ultimately obtains her goal while encouraging those around her to embrace life to the fullest and never underestimate the power of love.
Breezily directed with ample humor and earnest sensitivity by Joe Deer, this fast-paced outing is impressively led by Sara LiBrandi, a truly delightful and determined Dolly. LiBrandi’s breakthrough performance, mesmerizing in its maturity especially in frequent asides focused on Dolly’s late husband Ephraim, wonderfully conveys Dolly’s pivotal epiphany in Before the Parade Passes By. As hard-nosed Horace, the comical Jake Jones is an excellently stubborn authoritarian and relishes the playfulness of It Takes a Woman alongside the male ensemble. The admirable Steven Greenwalt and endearing Tommy Cole, a great dancer, are a respectively appealing duo as best friends Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, Horace’s dutiful employees. Kiama Wa-Tenza is an absolutely radiant Irene, exuding sophisticated elegance and offering a gorgeously introspective rendition of Ribbons Down My Back. The bubbly Ana Smith is tailor-made for Minnie Fay, Irene’s talkative and easily excitable sidekick. Ben Kneblik is a perfectly agitated Ambrose Kemper. Charlotte Kunesh wails with humorous abandon as Ermengarde, Horace’s distressed niece and Ambrose’s girlfriend. Diane Isom scores big laughs as the over-the-top Ernestina. The striking David Shockey commands attention as Rudolph, head waiter of the posh Harmonia Gardens restaurant. Principals also include Fischer Barnett as an enraptured Head Cook and exasperated painter, Melanie Dodson as the kindly Mrs. Rose, Michael Taylor as a sympathetic Judge, and Darian Watson as a befuddled Court Reporter.
In addition, choreographer Lula Elzy delivers some of her finest and liveliest work, particularly building Before the Parade Passes By with exceptionally astute scope (including a cute group of flag-waving kids) and filling the rousing title number with jubilantly cheery gusto and the unique sight of adoring female staff. The New Orleans native also choreographs a nifty curtain call which fittingly pays tribute to Louis Armstrong’s classic rendition of the title song and the exuberant jazz essence of the Big Easy. Bruce Brockman’s grand sets and Dixon Reynolds’ colorful period costumes, coordinated by Toni Donatio Shade and Alisa Vukasinovich, are courtesy of Music Theatre Wichita. John Rensel supplies expert lighting design. Musical director Sean Michael Flowers leads a vibrant orchestra.
In spite of winter’s bitter chill, whirl away your worry and see this outstanding, life-affirming presentation which ranks among the best in Muse history.
Hello, Dolly! continues today at 3 and 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton. Act One: 65 minutes. Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets are $26-$60. For tickets or more information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com.