On the Wall of Fame just to the left of the door to the tech booth in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall there’s a beautiful Micael-Renee’ April 1995 photo portrait of a smiling, shimmering Carol Channing during her second appearance there as Dolly Gallagher Levi.
After seeing the brilliant “Hello, Dolly!” national tour there Saturday (the day before its final Nashville performances), I feel a similar picture of the glorious life-force that is Theatre Hall of Fame member and Tony Award winner Betty Buckley should be right beside it.
I’ve been at many wonderful TPAC moments since I accompanied my parents to watch Princess Grace read poetry (in tribute to a Nashvillian, producer/director Fred Coe) with actor John Westbrook in Polk Theater in September 1980. I missed the legendary Channing’s 1982 TPAC appearance as Dolly, but saw her there in 1995.
I mention Princess Grace, Carol Channing and Betty Buckley together because they’re the ultimate triumvirate for my happy TPAC experiences – their artistic power benevolently provides blissful memories I will cherish as long as I draw breath.
That may read as over-the-top to some, but it’s why I love the arts so much; they take me beyond the mundane day-to-day responsibilities and cares to a joyful realization that comes from watching and hearing great artists. Their work is proof that humankind has a noble spark, a light that banishes the darkness.
This is the third time I’ve seen Buckley (not counting her wonderful TV work as Abby Bradford in “Eight is Enough”) – her Broadway appearances in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (AKA “Drood”) and “Sunset Boulevard” were the other two. I remember, for instance, the incredible “E” note she hit at the end of “Drood” in “The Writing on the Wall” – as I understand it, that was improvised in rehearsal because Rupert Holmes‘ score was different at that point. And since my wife and I had earlier seen Glenn Close in “Sunset Boulevard” I was reminded how great actors like Buckley (who got her first Broadway role, as Martha Jefferson in the original production of “1776,” on her first day in New York) make the part their own, successfully inviting you to stay in the moment with them.
Hopefully it doesn’t inadvertently contradict my last point to note that as I savored Buckley’s superlative mix of entertaining acting and singing choices there were images in my mind of Oscar and Tony-winning “Come Back, Little Sheba” actor Shirley Booth (who I loved as a boy through watching “Hazel” reruns on TV) from the 1958 film “The Matchmaker,” based on the 1955 Thornton Wilder play (revised from his 1938 farce “The Merchant of Yonkers”) that served as the main inspiration for the 1964 Jerry Herman/Michael Stewart musical. Why? Because that twinkle of the eye, that strength with a tender touch that Booth’s Dolly had is also present in Buckley’s creation of the character. “Hello, Dolly!” is a comedy, but to be successful any comedy must have a humane depth, something Buckley clearly understands.
If this “Hello, Dolly!” was just about Buckley, though, it would be a great concert by a legendary triple-threat performer instead of great theater. The whole ensemble – including not just the other actors but the terrific orchestra (which the program says includes Tim Laciano, Max Mamon, Richard Rosenweig, Jeffrey Wilfore and Nashville musicians Matt Davich, Doug Moffett, Robby Shankle, Randy Ford, Mike Barry, Scott Ducaj, Bill Huber, David Loucky, Amy Helman, Avery Bright, Deena Rizkalla, Paul Nelson and Patrick Atwater) conducted by Robert Billig and the luminary creatives behind the scenes like director Jerry Zaks, scenic and costume designer Santo Loquasto, choreographer Warren Carlyle, lighting designer Natasha Katz, sound designer Scott Lehrer and several others – makes this tour a swell, splendid, stupendous experience.
Lewis J. Stadlen is always a delight on Broadway and elsewhere – TPAC theatergoers will fondly recall his bravura March 2004 appearance as Max Bialystock with Alan Ruck (“Ferris Beuller’s Day Off,” “Spin City”) as Leo Bloom in “The Producers” national tour. In my review for The Tennessean I wrote that in character he often seemed “like the theatrical descendant of Bert Lahr and Jimmy Durante with a touch of (Zero) Mostel as well.” His irascible Horace Vandergelder is appropriately distinct from that characterization, but it also enjoyably recalls the great aspects of comedic (pardon the upcoming old redundancy) vim and vigor that those great performers and Stadlen have possessed in abundance. He also has a wonderfully flexible vocal instrument, whether speaking or singing, and his impeccable timing and superb nuance is present in every instant: his lovely delivery of the “Hello, Dolly” reprise as Act II ends brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.
The top supporting players are no less stellar – they are Murfreesboro’s own Analisa Leaming as Irene Malloy, Kristen Hahn as Minnie Fay, Nic Rouleau as Cornelius Hackl and Sean Burns as Barnaby Tucker. All four have gorgeous purity in their singing voices to go with excellent movement as dancers and spot-on choices as actors.
The remaining ensemble (which according to the program includes Colin LeMoine, Morgan Kirner, Jessica Sheridan, Wally Dunn, Maddy Apple, Daniel Beeman, Brittany Bohn, Giovanni Bonaventura, Elizabeth Broadhurst, Whitney Cooper, Darius Crenshaw, Julian DeGuzman, Alexandra Frohlinger, Dan Horn, Corey Hummerston, Madison Johnson, Nathan Keen, Beth Kirkpatrick, Ben Lanham, Ian Liberto, Kyle Samuel, Scott Shedenhelm, Timothy Shaw, Maria Christina Slye, Cassie Austin Taylor, Davis Wayne, Brandon L. Whitmore and Connor Wince) are a credit to their profession and this tour. Their exuberance and talent is always on winning display, and it’s a privilege to watch each of them work.
If, as one of the memorable lyrics from the show says, it only takes a moment to be loved your whole life long, the multitude of lovable moments provided by this “Hello, Dolly!” national tour should last many lifetimes in the memories of those who see it. And while I still hope they’ll put a picture of the great Betty Buckley up in TPAC beside the great Carol Channing, the mental images I have of her heart-warming work will joyfully sustain me. Thanks, thanks and ever thanks to her and her colleagues for the lasting gifts their performances give!
For more on the continuing national tour of “Hello, Dolly!” click here. For information on the next HCA/TriStar Health Broadway at TPAC presentation, “Miss Saigon,” click here. For information on the upcoming 2019-20 Broadway at TPAC Season Ticket Packages available from May 6 click here.