Regional Reviews: Chicago
With Hello, Dolly! viewed by many as "fluff," one may wonder what its source material has in common with Wilder's more serious Our Town. Minus the singing and dancing waiters of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant and the other flashy aspects of the musical's Gower Champion staging, the connections to Wilder's earlier work become more apparent in The Matchmaker. While Our Town shows the value of life from the viewpoint of the deceased, The Matchmaker celebrates life from the perspective of the living. Widow Dolly is coming out of hibernation after the death of her husband, Vandergelder learns to connect with others rather than simply profit from them, Cornelius and Barnaby enhance their self-esteem and learn to take risks, and Irene Molloy asserts herself and becomes willing to make changes that will lead her to a more fulfilling life. There's even a closing monologue by Barnaby in which he urges the audience to have just the right amount of adventure in their lives. It follows Dolly's direct address in which she resolves to "rejoin the human race," a line which Dolly fans will recognize as a lead-in to the musical's first act finale "Before the Parade Passes By."
Bringing Wilder's play back to today's audiences at the Goodman Theatre is director Henry Wishcamper, who knows a thing or two about classics (The Little Foxes, A Christmas Carol), broad comedy (Animal Crackers), and great American playwrights (Horton Foote's Talking Pictures). His approach here recalls all those. It's quite funnywith exquisite comic performances from Allen Gilmore as Vandergelder, Kristine Nielsen as Dolly, and Elizabeth Ledo as Irenebut Wishcamper gets a bit bogged down in perhaps too much respect for this classic. Wilder's script is on the long side for a farce, and Wishcamper exacerbates the problem by having his cast follow a leisurely, deliberate tone rather than the sort of manic pace one expects with this genre. Each actor is given time for their jokes to land and land they do, but it seems a faster pace would better get us swept up in the action. We shouldn't have time to think about the absurdity of what's going onjust laugh until it hurts.
The cast is funny, though, led by Ms. Nielsen's very Yente-ish, firmly in control matchmaker. She's a worthy successor to the many great actresses who've played this role in either The Matchmaker or Hello, Dolly!. The real treat is Allen Gilmore's Vandergelder, and not just because his mixture of arrogance, crotchetiness, and cluelessness is hilarious. It's also that it's a revelation to watch him in such a comic role after seeing him in more serious parts in the dramas of August Wilson and other African-American playwrights. That is the biggest gift of Wishcamper's ethnically diverse casting. While there certainly are Chicago actors of an appropriate age who could have been equally delightful as Vandergelder, it's refreshing to see a familiar and talented actor like Gilmore do something completely different and unexpected. Same for Behzad Dabu, whom I for one had only previously seen play characters who are specifically of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent. As Vandergelder's apprentice clerk Barnaby Tucker, Dabu is all youthful charm and lithe physicality as he slides under and hops atop tables.
Diverse casting, long a much-discussed topic in the Chicago theater community, has risen to the surface of late in the wake of the Marriott Theatre's announcement of an Evita cast with only one Hispanic actor. Wishcamper's perfect and unexpected casting choices of Gilmore and Dabu, along with the fine performances by Postell Pringle and Ronobir Lahiri as Cornelius and Ambrose, show the benefits for the audience of opening the possibilities of who can play certain roles. Also of note is the casting of Anita Hollander, a performer who walks with crutches and is delightful as Vandergelder's eighty-year-old housekeeper, Flora's cook, and a Harmonia Gardens musician.
Curiously, Wishcamper has cast white actresses in all the women's roles, which has no significance other than the fact that it may cause some audience members (like this writer) to stop and ponder if it had any significance. Perhaps that's a minor bump in the road on enjoying this play, but there's no arguing that he gets stellar comic performances from the ever-delightful Elizabeth Ledo as Irene and Marilyn Dodds Frank as Flora Van Huysen (a character not seen in Hello, Dolly!). Ledo's Irene is feisty, independent, and unpredictable while Frank's Flora is a wonderfully flaky yet lovable free-spirited dowager. Another standout is Marc Grapey as Vandergelder's exasperated new employee Malachi Stack. Grapey has a rough-hewn look and enough of a vocal and physical resemblance to Joe Mantegna that he uses to distinguish his character from the other, more refined characters.
This all plays out on a simple set by Neil Patel that is enough to suggest time and place. Its simplicity is actually more appropriate for Wishcamper's casting concept than a more detailed and realistic set might have been, reminding us that this is a play and not an attempt to literally recreate the people and places of New York circa 1896. More elaborate, but fanciful and theatrical are Jenny Mannis's gorgeous period costumes.
This production makes a case for the practice of diverse casting in the way it delivers such strong performances that well serve this American classic. One hopes that the lesson of The Matchmaker will not be only that diversity can be an effective directorial concept, but that it can be a practice that will delivers delights to audiences as well.
The Matchmaker will play the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Randolph, Chicago through April 10, 2016. For more information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org