Matchmaker seeks meal ticket in storied musical

Hello, Dolly!
Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! (Photos by Julieta Cervantes)

By Richard Ades

When comes to falling in love, timing is everything. That holds equally true when the potential object of your affection is a Broadway show.

Case in point: Decades ago, I encountered at Les Miserables at just the wrong time, when a tired and creaky touring show brought the musical back to Columbus long after its first visit. (And I mean literally creaky: The “turntable” was noisy enough to be heard over the orchestra.) The result is that I didn’t fall in love with the revolutionary tale until an incredible local production revealed its full power.

On the other hand, I encountered Miss Saigon at just the right time, via an early touring show that remains the best of the three productions I’ve seen.

All this is my way of saying it might be too late for me to fall in love with Hello, Dolly! Amazingly, I had not seen the chestnut until it toured its way into Columbus this week. The upshot: I admired the familiar Jerry Herman tunes, the spirited Warren Carlyle choreography and the giddily colorful, Santo Loquasto-designed scenery and costumes. But those attributes didn’t make up for a nearly nonexistent plot that was undercut by over-the-top comedy and spectacle.

Surprisingly, the New York Times reviewer who caught the original Broadway production back in 1964 had some of the same objections. In the end, though, the critic was won over by Carol Channing’s portrayal of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widowed matchmaker and Jill-of-all-trades who was tired of scraping by in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

Channing was an incandescent presence who could simultaneously project charisma and vulnerability. That combination probably helped to carry the audience along as Dolly hatched a desperate plan to court and marry Horace Vandergelder, a wealthy and miserly Yonkers storekeeper who neither loved her nor was loved by her. Her bravura performance buoyed the tale right through to its bittersweet conclusion.

Over the years, the role has been taken on by a variety of stars ranging from two who originally turned it down—Ethel Merman and Mary Martin—to the divine Miss Bette Midler. In the current touring show, the task falls to Broadway veteran Betty Buckley. Buckley has proved her theatrical chops over the years playing iconic roles such as Cats’s Grizabella and Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, but here she doesn’t seem to generate the necessary wattage. Though her sweetly aging voice carries the tunes well enough, we just don’t buy the power Dolly seems to hold over Lewis J. Stadlen’s grumpily reluctant Horace and everyone else in sight.

Hello, Dolly!

Directed by Jerry Zaks, the touring show accompanies Dolly’s efforts with the same combination of silly humor and glorious spectacle that won the original Broadway production a mixed Times review and a bevy of Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The silly humor includes Morgan Kirner’s honking portrayal of Horace’s niece Ermengarde, whose desire to wed artist Ambrose (Colin LeMoine) becomes Dolly’s cause du jour and is subsequently forgotten for most of the play.

Also silly is a hide-and-seek sequence involving Horace’s thrill-seeking employees Cornelius and Barnaby (Nic Rouleau and Sean Burns), hatmaker Irene (Analisa Leaming) and her assistant, Minnie (Kristen Hahn). But the four ultimately make up for it with help from Hahn’s comic expertise, Rouleau’s vocal pipes and Burns’s agile footwork.

Down in the pit, Robert Billig conducts a large orchestra bolstered by a number of local musicians, allowing tunes such as “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before the Parade Passes By” and, of course, “Hello, Dolly!” to be delivered with all the richness they require.

Though I failed to fall in love with Hello, Dolly!, I do appreciate the scenic and vocal attributes that reward those who are. And who knows? Maybe one day a particularly persuasive Dolly will come along and win me over.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Hello, Dolly! through May 12 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $39-$119+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Presidential rom-com mixes satire with sex and drug jokes

Long Shot
Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) helps Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) loosen up in a scene from Long Shot.

By Richard Ades

The two main criteria for judging a romantic comedy are, naturally: (1) Is it romantic? And (2) is it funny?

In the case of Long Shot, the answer to both questions is “sometimes.”

Directed by Jonathan Levine (Snatched), the rom-com concocts a potentially intriguing matchup. On the one side is Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who begins planning a presidential run after learning the current commander-in-chief (Bob Odenkirk) won’t seek a second term. On the other side is Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a liberal journalist who leaves his job when his publication is sold to a conservative media conglomerate. When the two meet at a party and Charlotte realizes they were childhood neighbors, she impulsively hires Fred as a speechwriter.

On the surface, the glamorous, powerful Charlotte and the scruffy, laid-back Fred are a typical rom-com odd couple. Beneath the surface, however, there’s an actual connection. Years ago, 13-year-old Fred secretly had a crush on 16-year-old Charlotte, who served as his babysitter when she wasn’t running to be their school’s student-body president.

Now that they’ve been thrown together as adults, it’s obvious that Fred still has a crush on Charlotte, but he’s too aware of the difference in their positions to let on. Instead, he starts plying her for information about herself, explaining that a speechwriter needs to know his subject. Apparently charmed by his interest, Charlotte is happy to oblige. Even if you’re not a rom-com fan, you’ll have no trouble figuring out where this is headed.

Is Charlotte and Fred’s roundabout courtship romantic? Well, it may be for some, but not for me. It just seems too contrived and predictable, especially with sappy music telegraphing every development.

Well, is the film at least funny? Parts of it are, especially the early slapstick scenes featured in the commercials. Whether later scenes tickle your funny bone depends on your affinity for R-rated gags involving sex and drugs. They may produce a few reflexive chuckles, but they’re not nearly as satisfying as humor that grows organically out of characters and situations.

Appropriately for a film coming out in 2019, Long Shot also takes a stab at political satire, though its efforts are pretty tame compared to what’s aired on late-night TV. Like Donald Trump, Odenkirk’s President Chambers earned his fame on television (as an actor rather than a reality star). But unlike Trump, he has no political ambition and is simply using the presidency as a steppingstone to his actual career goal of breaking into the movies.

Screenwriters Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah likewise take aim at Trump’s favorite show, Fox & Friends, with a clone that lambastes liberals and feminists and is part of a network run by the Stephen Bannon-like Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis). To make sure the flick doesn’t alienate conservative viewers too much, though, their script aims other barbs at the liberal Fred, who is shamed for not knowing that his black best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a Republican—a Republican whose political philosophy is along the lines of “Believe in yourself.” Edgy!

Perhaps the movie makes the strongest political statements about the special challenges faced by a woman like Charlotte who’s trying to break through the ultimate glass ceiling. But it may go too far when it has Fred apologize for not realizing that such challenges sometimes force her to sacrifice her ideals. That’s probably not a message that real-life women candidates would appreciate.

Long Shot does benefit from two likable star turns. Theron adds enough humanity to the regal Charlotte to prevent her from becoming an ice queen, while Rogen plays the chemically adventurous Fred as an extension of his usual persona. It’s just too bad the script didn’t find more interesting ways for these two likable people to interact.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Long Shot (rated R) opened May 3 at theaters nationwide.