by Michael Bowen

They're doing that old warhorse Hello, Dolly! at Spokane Civic Theatre (through June 11). But why spend the time and money when you could just pop the Barbra Streisand-Walter Matthau movie into the VCR?

Several reasons: most of Michael Stewart's book of the musical, a couple of the songs and the performances of Kendra Kimball as Irene Molloy and Jan Neumann in the title role.

For most of the rest of this show, however, you really would be better off watching the movie. For example, as Horace Vandergelder (the crabby tightwad merchant whom Dolly inexplicably pursues), the movie has Matthau, a master at irritability and the slow burn; this show has Michael Hynes, whose wholesome cheer peeks out through nearly all his attempts at irascible scowling. No stage show could ever match the movie's cast-of-thousands excess in the "Sunday Clothes" and "Parade" numbers; but here, director Yvonne A.K. Johnson and her trio of choreographers, working with far fewer dancers, over-crowd a large stage. The choruses of men, women and children look nervous; they're not intent on putting on their Sunday clothes and celebrating so much as they're hoping they won't mess up. As Horace's niece, Ermengarde, Danielle Read tantrums so loudly and so well that she earned applause for her first brief entrance. Then, unlike her movie counterpart, she spent the rest of the show throwing the same tantrum.

Of course, on the positive side, Jan Neumann is a woman of a certain age, and Streisand wasn't. Further, the musical's book improves on the movie script in one important respect: It depicts Dolly's widowed status much more clearly, providing the character with some motives and depth.

Neumann takes advantage by making Dolly a flurry of activity. She distributes ad hoc business cards for every occasions (even to front-row audience members); she tosses insults at any woman Horace shows an interest in; she butters up Horace with phony compliments, hilariously. Staring up into a spotlight representing her husband Ephraim's ghost, she conveys her respect and affection for his uncommon common sense -- and her sadness over his death.

The first-act curtain song, "Before the Parade Passes By," has considerably more impact in the musical -- and in Neumann's performance of it -- than in the movie because it derives from sadness and heightens Dolly's already considerable determination. (Why exactly she settles on Horace the Grump as her second husband is, in the best tradition of fairy tales and American musical comedy, never explained. For her economic survival in a benighted, sexist era? Dolly wears too many fine floppy hats to suggest that shopping expenses are an obstacle.)

Susan Berger and Jan Wanless are to be commended for costuming a large cast in mostly stylish turn-of-the-century clothing. The ingenue and her sidekick show up for "Elegance" at the top of Act Two in periwinkle and pink gowns that exemplify the title of the song they're singing; Dolly's come-hither woman-in-scarlet gown for her big entrance in the title tune is everything it needs to be. Yet earlier, Dolly showed up in a pink, red and olive quilt-pattern concoction, apparently stitched by committee: an eyesore that managed to detract from Neumann's flamboyant performance.

Johnson and her choreographers have coached their cadre of waiters into some delightful split-second acrobatics during the restaurant scenes. In particular, as Louie, Henry McNulty combines a stone-face demeanor with rubbery limbs and balletic grace.

Kendra Kimball makes a truly lovely love interest for Cornelius, the elder of Vandergelder's two country-mouse clerks gone to act like city mice for a day. "Ribbons Down My Back" comes out of nowhere -- one minute Irene's a coquette, the next she's a poignant widow, no matter, we needed a ballad right about there -- but that's not Kimball's fault, and she sings beautifully. Once she ascertains that Cornelius (Andrew Ware Lewis) is good-looking, she makes clear -- much like Dolly -- that she's going to be the one in charge. Director Johnson gets good comic mileage out of the farcical hide-the-bachelors-in-the-hat-shop bit, and Lewis and Kimball even manage to make convincing goo-goo eyes at each other amid all the shenanigans.

But the payoff for the secondary love interests arrives in "It Only Takes a Moment," when Lewis strides forward and sings about how quickly a cute girl can make a store clerk's heart go thumpity-thump. By the time Kimball (as Irene) steps forward to join the love duet, Johnson has various couples in the chorus putting arms around waists and reclining heads on shoulders. Lovely stuff.

But golly, it only takes a moment for an episode of romantic beauty to get lost in this show's often just-plain-dumb book. Horace -- the man who thinks 99 percent of humanity is foolish -- spends 99 percent of the play being an unfeeling jerk. Then, when the plot calls for it and he's in his store and down on his knees anyway rearranging feedbags, he suddenly blurts out an insincere-sounding proposal to Dolly.

There are other implausibilities, too. "It Takes a Woman" in particular is old-fashioned tripe: Vandergelder may have just lectured his two lackeys on how lazy and irresponsible they are, but when it comes time for the three of them to sing the praises of housewives willing to mop the floors, well, by gum, they hop right to it.

Horace insults people, then they gratefully get up and dance with him. Ah, musicals.

Publication date: 05/19/05

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.