MAGNA — I’ve always laughed a little at the lyrics, “My heart is about to burst. My head is about to pop!” They’re expressing great excitement, obviously, but it creates an unpleasant mental image. Head. Popping. Yeah, it’s intense. Thankfully, I felt no such expanding pressure in my head as I watched Hello, Dolly! at the Empress Theater last weekend. I felt, rather, great satisfaction at the joy I was seeing onstage, and I was reminded how much I love that fantastically written musical.
It’s the story of Dolly Levi, the professional meddler, who plans to marry the wealthy Horace Vandergelder. She pulls a few strings in other characters’ lives, puts words into a few mouths, and plays the show’s plot like a chessboard to achieve her goal. Thanks to Dolly, Horace Vandergelder’s two employees, Cornelius and Barnaby, find love and adventure with Irene Malloy and Minnie Fay. Vandergelder’s niece runs off with her fiancée and enters a dance contest. And Dolly convinces Horace, in a roundabout way, that she is the only woman for him. It’s an interesting story, because each character steps into the unknown and finds the thing they needed most.
Director Jake Anderson has a special place in his heart for Hello, Dolly! and he’s done a wonderful job presenting it to his audience. Anderson built a production that surrounded the audience with enveloping sights and sounds. I liked when the actors filled the staircases and sang right next to me, like they did in “Call on Dolly.” The ensemble, when united, really impressed me; they sounded excellent and looked vibrant, thanks to vocal director Jacob Clark. The train station scene was a beautiful picture to see: the children’s excitement, the stage full of characters, the bright faces and Amy Martinez’s colorful costumes all around. Anderson made good use of his large cast. The dancing in the show was very good; my favorite choreography from Corina Johnson was in the restaurant. The dancers were dressed in black and white, playing waiters, and they executed each move so precisely. The featured dancers (Emily Preston and Sasha Nugter) were sharp and exciting to watch.
I loved the detailed artwork on the walls and the set pieces that were created. However, I wondered why Cornelius’s table at the restaurant had flowers on it, blocking the actors’ faces. That might be a prop issue, though. There was a white piece of paper labeling “Vandergelders” on the back wall that looked silly and unnecessary. Otherwise, the play’s environment felt cohesive (set design by Jake Andersen, with Devin Johnson as scenic artist). Hopefully Empress can also improve their lighting in the future. There was no lighting for two of the staircases; so when Cornelius and Barnaby set out on their adventure, only Barnaby could be seen. The soloist in “Hello, Dolly!” as well, was in the dark. The Empress is a wonderful space; show it off with lights.
Irene Malloy (Emalee Easton) had a lovely voice, which was displayed in “Ribbons Down My Back.” Easton is a beautiful actress, but I think her hairstyle aged her, making her and Cornelius feel like an awkward match. I also didn’t feel any chemistry between her and Cornelius (Logan Gifford). Gifford put a lot of energy into his role, and he was funny. I think he would have been more believable with a subtler accent, if any at all. But as Barnaby, Curtis F. Nash‘s made excellent voice choices. I would have loved more facial expressions from their boss, Mr. Vandergelder (Nate Rasmussen), and I’m sure that will come with experience; he mentions in his bio that he is quite new to the stage.
A few moments in the show I didn’t understand; for example when Minnie (Devin Johnson) joins Irene in singing “Ribbons Down My Back.” It was like Minnie was barging in on a private moment—a thought process—and it felt odd to have someone else present. Soon after, there is a song called “Motherhood March,” where Irene, Dolly, and Minnie are attempting to cover up the presence of Cornelius and Barnaby, though each had a different motivation. Many in the audience laughed as the characters ran around, crazily, hiding under tables or behind one another. To me, though, it mostly felt tedious as the men moved to a new hiding place over and over again.
The sound was too loud at times, like when Ermengarde was wailing or when Horace was railing on his employees. And the music stopped completely during the song, “Dancing,” although I compliment Logan Gifford for dealing with the technical difficulty and continuing the scene. The music track was very good; I enjoyed the variety in instrumentation and the bright clean feel of the recordings.
The highlight, though, was that charming character, Dolly Levi. She really is a dream role. Her songs (by Jerry Herman) are full and beautiful, while her dialogue (written by Michael Stewart) is quick and clever. Who can help but love Dolly? Rachael Rasmussen carried this character with charm and grace. Rasmussen has a meaty voice, rich and substantial, with which she has the ability to carry songs like, “Before the Parade Passes By.” Rasmussen also has the insight to play within the script, adding her own subtleties and smiles. Dolly has a lot of lines, though, and Rasmussen didn’t have a handle on all of them; I noticed her tongue tripping the most in the hat shop. I wanted more punch/oomph in “So Long, Dearie,” too, because it’s such a climax in the show. The title song, “Hello, Dolly!” though, was a great Rasmussen moment for me. She owned the song, the theater, and the show at that point. That scene makes me smile so much, and I got chills when the “room [started] swayin’.” I think “Parade” could have been that good with different staging.
It wasn’t a perfect show, but I sure enjoyed myself at the Empress that night. Jake Andersen and his talented cast present a Hello, Dolly! full of life and happiness. It’s clear that they love what they’re doing, and it was a pleasure to be a part of it for one evening.