BWW Reviews: Get Up Close and Personal with DOLLY at Spotlighters Theatre
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by Giordana Segneri
There's nothing more personal than theater in the round, especially when it's on such an intimate scale as that at Spotlighters Theatre where there's a maximum of three rows of seating on each side. And it seems a fitting way to get to know Dolly Gallagher Levi, star of Hello, Dolly!, since her greatest joy is getting to know you-in the hopes of making a little money off of what she's figured out.
Given the large size of the cast (at least 15 members) and the Lilliputian scale of the stage, the ensemble does an excellent job moving about and using the space to the fullest, miraculously avoiding collisions or awkward run-ins, especially during full-cast dance numbers. Still, given the size of the production (and Hello, Dolly! is a big one: big cast, big hair, big clothes, big hats, big personalities), the stage often feels a bit cramped.
As we get to know Dolly and her charismatic modus operandi, we, too, come under her spell-much to the credit of Maribeth Eckenrode, who channels the cheeky, brassy turn-of-the-century yenta with panache-following her adventures and misadventures in Yonkers, where we meet the object of her latest scheme, Horace VanderGelder (Bob Ahrens), and then in New York City.
Along the way, we encounter Cornelius Hackl (Bart Debicki) and Barnaby Tucker (Jeff Baker), VanderGelder's feed store clerks who want nothing more than to escape their humdrum employment and soak up some of the glitz and glitter of the Big City. Hackl and Tucker's comic relief is endearing as they bumble their way through an undercover getaway and a chance encounter with Irene Molloy (Eileen del Valle) and Minnie Fay (Holly Gibbs), which eventually leads to love.
The Debicki-Baker duo are enjoyable to watch; Debicki does a particularly good job with his solo, "It Only Takes a Moment," in the second act, and Baker's ability to portray Barnaby's ebullient enthusiasm for everything adds life and laughter to the production. Similarly, del Valle and Gibbs merit praise for their portrayals of Irene and Minnie as they launch themselves into an afternoon and evening on the town with the mysterious men from Yonkers who turn their lives upside down. Gibbs, especially, has a vivaciousness that fills the stage and a strong voice that carries some of the ensemble numbers.
At times, however, the grandness of Dolly overwhelms the little stage, and in that intimate space, the unevenness of the cast is all the more evident. Voices fade out in the higher registers of some of the numbers, especially with the volume of the recorded music, and occasionally, it's unclear whether the singing is truly on key. During some of the scenes, the dancing-squeezed onto the stage and constrained by the 360-degree nature of theater in the round-degenerates into clunky, robotic movements.
Still, certain moments shine: The choreography evoking the train ride from Yonkers to New York City is charming, and the Harmonia Garden dinner scenes, "Waiters' Gallop" and "Hello, Dolly," are enchantingly entertaining. And while audiences might find themselves wishing for a slightly less grating Ermengarde (Rachel Vehaaren), a slightly more romantic Ambrose Kemper (Justin Johnson) and slightly more convincing chemistry between Dolly and Horace, this Dolly is a delightful couple hours' distraction.
Hello, Dolly! runs Friday-Sunday through May 20 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St. in Baltimore. Its next production, The Hot l Baltimore, opens June 1, 2012. For more information, visit www.spotlighters.org.
Photos courtesy of Spotlighters Theatre.