Having tackled the Jesus of “Godspell” on stage already, the question remains: Is director Daniel Goldstein now ready to handle an even more iconic musical comedy character?
We’re talking about one of the most popular and beloved musical heroines of all time, Dolly Gallagher Levi, the irrepressible matchmaker of Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s classic, “Hello, Dolly.” Now in previews at the Goodspeed Opera House, the already-extended production will run through September 14, with Broadway and cabaret star Klea Blackhurst taking on the role that Carol Channing originated back in the mid-1960’s.
“Very rarely do you get the chance to do a show on the scale of ‘Dolly,'” explains the New York based director whose recent credits, in addition to the recent Broadway revival of “Godspell,” include “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown” at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre, “God of Carnage” at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, “Anna Christie” at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater and “True West” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
“I’m used to doing plays or developing new musicals with small casts,” Goldstein indicated, so he jumped at the chance to direct “Dolly” and get to work on Goodspeed’s main stage with a large cast. At the same time, he’s aware of the challenges posed by the Goodspeed stage. “It requires that you put a lot of creativity into the show in order to accommodate the Opera House stage,” he continues, “but it needs to look like you had all the room in the world.”
He realizes that an audience will approach “Hello, Dolly,” with certain expectations and he promises not to disappoint. “You don’t mess with the stairway and the red dress,” he laughs. He also quickly assures that “there’s no reduction in the amount of dancing, just in the number of people doing it,” while praising the work of choreographer and Goodspeed veteran Kelli Barclay. He’s been especially grateful for the opportunity to work with Barclay and the ensemble to create individual personalities for the dancers in the various sequences. “You get a sense of who each of them are,” he says, “as Kelli gives them little individual moments in the context of the dances.”
At the same time, however, Goldstein admits that there had to be some adjustments. “The original production had 44 cast members and we have 19,” he shares. “We need to allow the theatrical imagination to be present and encourage the audience to go on this journey with us.” He compares it to a moment when you’re on a cliff. “You can stand there or leap,” he says, “and what we try to do is get all the audience to decide to take that leap.”
He stresses that this is exactly what playwright Thornton Wilder did in plays like “Our Town” and “The Matchmaker,” upon which “Hello, Dolly” is based. Wilder, Goldstein said, asked his audience in “The Matchmaker” to imagine that we’re all in a room telling a story together. We are all creating something together.”
Of the set, Goldstein details that he and the creative team, including scenic designer Adrian W. Jones and lighting designer Jason Lyons, tried to find a way to create a single look in which all the different worlds of the show could be incorporated, from Horace Vandergelder’s store in Yonkers to the train station to Irene Malloy’s millinery shop and, of course, the Harmonia Gardens restaurant. “There’s a sense of coming and going throughout the show,” he explains, “and that all the characters are in a place of transition.”
As rehearsals began, Goldstein explains that he went looking, in his words, “for moments that made the characters known, that would make them more than just storybook characters. And then letting those moments breathe and finding the humanity and the comedy in them.”
He’s especially that he has Blackhurst to play the role of Dolly. “Klea can sing these songs like nobody else,” he relates. “The role was originally conceived for Ethel Merman and written that way. Klea’s voice knows the sublime way to structure a song, so that her character’s sensitivity and vulnerability also shows through.”
As a young widow, Goldstein explains, Dolly is wounded and has to find her own way of defining herself without hurting herself. “It’s not a small thing,” he stresses, “Allowing herself to open to Horace Vandergelder is a monumental task, so she masks it by trying to find matches for everyone else but herself. Dolly has this very real connection to her late husband, Ephraim, which Klea plays so well. It’s not just a throwaway device. She really needs to know that he is ready to let her go. I find it to be an incredibly modern and forward thinking device.”
Goldstein also admires and respects the Jerry Herman score. “There’s not a bad song in the bunch,” he states. “And the songs to a lot work. They are not songs that just sit there and explain what has already happened. They move the show forward.” He cites “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” that takes the entire cast from Yonkers to New York over the course of the song, and “Ribbons Down My Back” which takes the widowed milliner Irene Malloy from mourning to a place where she is willing to take a chance on another romantic relationship. “The score doesn’t allow you to sit still,” he indicates.
He calls designer Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes “pretty” and “beautiful,” and he’s especially excited about the color palette the team has put together for Dolly’s outfits. “The costumes are awesome and richly textured,” he adds, with special note made of the elaborate hat designs that fill out the millinery shop.
Although “Hello, Dolly” has enjoys a familiarity and popularity among the theater-going public, and especially among theater folk themselves, “doing the show at Goodspeed gives you a chance to explore it anew,” the director states, “because of the Goodspeed mission and history to keep the musical tradition alive. In so many ways this has been like working on a new musical.”
And like the Disney film character Wall-E who found great enjoyment and solace in watching and re-watching the film version of “Hello Dolly,” Goldstein remains touched by so much in the show. “Klea and Tony (Sheldon, the Australian actor who plays Horace) are such good foils for each other. They provide so many moments that are moving and touching, that you feel that their romance is inevitable.”
Goldstein, whose next project is a new play in Japan and written in Japanese, is quite proud of another recent production, he and his wife, Melissa Lee’s, 21-month old daughter, Gracie Lee Goldstein. “She’s the best,” the happy daddy reveals. “She dances a lot to favorites like “Call Me Maybe” and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as “Old MacDonald.” Lee is currently in law school, and working with a group of public defenders in the Bronx.
It seems clear that Goldstein knows the collective value of all of the special moments in “Hello Dolly” and is committed to maximizing them for the audience’s enjoyment. It’s a sentiment obviously shared by the show’s composer, one of whose songs in his score for “Dolly” is the aptly named “It Only Takes A Moment.”
For information and tickets, contact the Goodspeed Box Office at 860.873.8668 or visit the Goodspeed Musicals website at www.goodspeed.org.
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