North Carolina Theatre's production of Hello, Dolly! is one of the big "show must go on" stories of this past season. With mere days until the opening, much-hyped star Cybill Shepherd was sidelined with an injury, necessitating a last-minute replacement by Broadway veteran Jacquelyn Piro Donovan. Thankfully, Donovan ably fills the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi for the show's biggest moments, though the old-fashioned musical might appeal most to older audiences.
As Dolly, Donovan seemed at first to lack the gusto needed to fill the part, but she knocked it out of the park with the show's title number in Act 2 and maintained a mischievous comic energy throughout. By the time she's calmly wading through the chaos at the Harmonia Gardens and finishing up her meal in time to arrive at night court, she's got the audience in the palm of her hand.
In the first act, though, Donovan's in danger of being upstaged by her supporting cast. As the stuffy half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder, Stephen Godwin has a nice combination of hyperactivity and understatement, while Matt Loehr has a similarly frantic energy as the would-be romantic Cornelius Hackl, who kick-starts "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," the first-act showstopper that includes a moving train prop.
There's a particularly dated feel to the show: The story line and characters aren't particularly deep, and there's little drama to be found in the lighter-than-air plot. Dolly was admittedly old-fashioned even when it premiered in the 1960s, yet it broke records with its run on Broadway as one of the first true blockbuster musicals. This writer's mother vividly remembers seeing the all-black production with Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, and even the flop film version with a too-young Barbara Streisand remained enough of a mainstay of TV and video that the Pixar film WALL*E presented it as the ultimate symbol of idealized courtly love. Even today, Dolly still has a remarkable hold over audiences, including the matinee crowd that gave this production a standing ovation on Sunday.
So what is the appeal of Dolly? Well, spectacle has something to do with it—the show offers audiences a literal parade of 1890s fashions and settings (the budget for hats is probably more than the cost of an entire staging of Pippin). When the spectacle is centered on a larger-than-life character like the matchmaker Dolly and a classic farce scenario where everyone winds up happy, it's easy to forgive a plot that barely holds together if any logic is applied. But there's still a certain sense of triumph with N.C. Theatre's production of Hello, Dolly!—just like the title character, they've persevered to put on one hell of a show.
Correction (May 11, 2011): North Carolina Theatre's website was incorrect in print; it is nctheatre.com, not .org.