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East of England
posted/updated: 15 Apr 2016 -
Hello, Dolly!
Book by Michael Stewart. Music & lyrics by Jerry Harman. Based on the play “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder. Original Production Directed and Choreographed by Gower Champion.
society/company: Southend Operatic and Dramatic Society (directory)
performance date: 13 Apr 2016
venue: Palace Theatre, 430 London Road Westcliff-on-sea, Essex, SS0 9LA
reviewer/s: Michael GRAY (Sardines review)

Always a pleasure to welcome back to the stage Mrs Dolly Levi, née Gallagher, meddler and matchmaker, especially in the lovely old Palace Theatre. 

A commanding presence in the title role from Suzanne Walters, in a succession of arresting outfits. She belts out the big numbers, but finds time for a little tenderness, too. In the title song she has a staircase to descend, of course, possibly the steepest, narrowest steps I've seen, but she is equally effective alone against the lovely sepia streetscape in Before the Parade Passes By – the understated procession itself materialising magically in the background.

One of the last of the great old-fashioned musicals, it's given an old-fashioned production by Jonny Buxton, making his début as director with SODS. Sometimes a little slow, sometimes a little static [the waiters' galop more of a canter, though most impressively done], with the occasional hiatus, it is nonetheless crammed with great performances from a talented company. La Walters apart, the most successful at engaging a lethargic matinée audience are Les Cannon as grumpy old Vandergelder and Rachael Farrow as the milliner's assistant Minnie. She's the one who pairs up with young Barnaby Tucker – a bright, breezy performance from Ewan Dunlop, looking as if he's just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.

Lots of matches made in this feel-good plot: Widow Molloy – an elegant Emma Tout, giving us a beautiful Ribbons Down My Back – with Nick Bright's charming Cornelius, and struggling artist Ambrose [the excellent Declan Wright] with Ermengarde, Horace's lachrymose niece [Sacha Jonas].

Nice comedy turns from Keeley Wickham as the frightful Ernestina Money [“Her mother was a Cash, you know.”] and Ian Scoging as Rudolph, maître d' at the Harmonia Gardens, drilling his waiters with a shrill whistle and ringing up an invisible curtain on the action.

The production has some stylish moments: the parasols against the black cloth, the It Takes A Woman trio from Horace and the boys, the Dancing sequence – choreography by Cassie Estall and Becki Wendes. I liked the way Dolly remains on stage [tucking in to her turkey] as the scene changes around her, and Horace does something similar as he makes the journey back to Yonkers without moving from the spot.

Jerry Herman's famous score – Put on Your Sunday Clothes, It Only Takes a Moment and the rest – is in the capable hands of MD Elizabeth Dunlop; there's a very polished pit band hidden beneath the stage.

A believable turn-of-the-century setting, broad Broadway comedy and a succession of toe-tapping tunes make for a delightful, if undemanding, outing for this classic of the genre.

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