Karen Keehn (Dolly, left) and Abi Francis (Ermangarde) practicing with parasols. (Photo: Dustin DelGiudice)
Is everyday life getting to you? Had enough of the economy, politics? Need an escape to a love story with music, dance and colorful costumes? Take a couple of hours off, and say, “Goodbye reality” and “Hello, Dolly!” Playhouse 395’s version of the smash hit musical opens Friday, March 16, for a three-weekend run through March 31.
The story of a self-starter widow, who strives to bring romance to several couples and herself, the role of Dolly Levi in the Broadway version was originally written for Ethel Merman, but Merman turned it down, as did “Peter Pan” star Mary Martin (although each eventually played it). The show’s producer, David Merrick, eventually hired Carol Channing, who then created in Dolly her signature role.
When it opened in New York, “Hello, Dolly!” became one of the most iconic Broadway shows of the 1960s, running for 2,844 performances. It was for a time the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
“I oversee the productions, and one my duties is reading a lot of scripts,” explained Martha Reynolds, the show’s director and Playhouse 395 artistic director. “Can we do it? Do we have the manpower to produce it? What can we perform? Some of the plays are just too male heavy.” Reynolds said she would love to do a show such as “Damn Yankees,” but there are too many male roles in it.
“In college I read ‘The Matchmaker,’ and did a performance of his ‘Skin of Our Teeth,’ so I’m real familiar with the character,” she elaborated. “I like Dolly … I identify with her. She was up against a wall, couldn’t get a job, but she couldn’t go out alone, there wasn’t much open to you as woman in the world. She had to live by her wits, and kept her home going, and found adventure in her life, all by herself. She had to grab her own power. I took that to heart.”
Reynolds said she wanted to run hurdles in track in the ‘70s. “But that was before Title IX and equal participation for girls in school sports. I literally got chased off the track,” she recalled.
Dolly’s forte is matchmaking. “She’ll find a match for you … she’ll provide introductions … match people up,” Reynolds muses. “As Dolly says, ‘I’ve always been a woman who arranges things, from furniture to daffodils to lives.’ She’s quite manipulative, very clever … has to make the man come to his own epiphany, as if it were his own realization even though it’s really not.”
Throughout the play Dolly has sporadic conversations with her late husband, asking him to tell her it’s okay to fall in love again, and get on with her life.
The cast calls “an embarrassment of riches,” with veteran players such as Karen Keehn (Maria Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” and the Evil Queen in “Once Upon a Mattress”) as Dolly … Rose Masters, also from “South Pacific,” as hat shop owner Irene Malloy … Abby Rossi, who played Rose in Bye Bye Birdie as Minnie Fay … Ron Valenzuela from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “South Pacific” as Barnaby … Brandon Parker, Lt. Cable in “South Pacific,” as Cornelius, who’s matched up to Irene … and John Millerburg as the wealthy Vandergelder.
Alongside them is talented newcomer Kris Hohag. “He’d never done a show before, but has a lovely voice,” Reynolds said.
Another of the show’s selling points: the show lends itself to BUHS’ new state of the art sound system. “We have 23 people on wireless mics, plus overheads. Dave Pratt is leading the 22-piece orchestra, and just loves the music, which is important. And it’s got songs that are really going to leave the audience singing when they leave.” One of Reynold’s favorites is ‘It Only Takes A Moment” is one of the most beautiful, Then there’s the dancing, complete with marching baton and rifle twirlers, choreographed by Tonya Zaleschuk, who “whipped together all these really good dancers!” In addition, Reynolds went out on a limb and asked to extend the stage out with a promenade similar to that used by Channing on Broadway, so Dolly can dance closer to the audience. “We have to be creative and do a lot with a little, but if I can dream it up, the crew can do it,” she said.
Reynolds said that, after a thinking she’d given up on theatre when she relocated to the Eastern Sierra years ago, it has been a “thrill to have the opportunities to direct shows, especially with Playhouse 395.” She’s also very enthused about the overall state of performing arts in the Eastern Sierra, and the growing reciprocal relationships that are forming. “I’m a big fan of what [Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theatre Artistic Director] Shira Dubrovner did with ‘Lend Me a Tenor,’ and ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ is just wonderful,” Reynolds commented.
Playhouse 395 lent assistance to Sierra Classic Theatre for its staging of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” last summer at Sam’s Woodsite. That outdoor venue served as inspiration for PH395’s own production this summer of The Bard’s “Taming of the Shrew,” which will be produced at Mill Creek Station’s outdoor amphitheatre venue. (Watch for auditions in April.)
“Hello, Dolly!” plays Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. nightly at Bishop Union High School, with a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $9.99-$19.99. (March 17 matinee special: all seats just $8.) Get tickets at 760.920.9100 or www.playhouse395.com.