Sally Struthers’ Dolly Levi is the type of woman nobody can say no to.
Her fast-talking, amiable matchmaker in Hello, Dolly! is such a force of nature while handling the lives of others, she can plant an idea in a man’s head and make him believe he thought of it himself.
Acclaimed comedic actress Struthers, best known for her Emmy Award-winning role as Gloria in the 1970s groundbreaking comedy All in the Family, stars in the national tour of Hello, Dolly!, which premiered on Broadway 50 years ago. Carol Channing, the original Dolly on Broadway, made the character her signature role.
It’s a special 50th anniversary, considering this is the show’s first national tour since Channing’s many years ago. Composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, who saw Struthers in Mame in Los Angeles, gave her his blessing to lead the current tour.
The show, which ran Thursday and Friday at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron, features Struthers’ considerable comedic skills, an energetic young supporting cast, great-looking sets and stunning costumes, including gowns in an assortment of splashy jewel tones.
Struthers, 66, stands only 5-feet-1, but she brings a larger-than-life presence to the iconic role from the moment she alights from a horse-drawn carriage. And she looks like she’s having a whole lot of fun in the process.
The musical’s production values are high, with big, beautiful sets and vibrant colors that match Dolly’s bold personality. In this 1897 story, widowed matchmaker Dolly is trying to find a suitable wife for half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder of Yonkers, but she really has designs on him. Cornelius and Barnaby, beleaguered clerks of Vandergelder Hay and Feed, decide to sneak out of work and find some adventure by spending a day in Manhattan, vowing not to come back until they’ve kissed a girl.
Dolly, who’s also trying to make sure artist Ambrose Kemper gets the hand of Vandergelder’s niece, Ermengarde, is a highly resourceful character who has a business card to hand out for just about anything anyone would need. She’s scheming but lovable, surrounded by innocents including the silly Ermengarde (an over-the-top Hilary Fingerman), goofy Cornelius and Barnaby (Matt Wolfe and Lucas Fedele) and the fluttering busybody Minnie Fay (the adorable Halle Morse), who works in Irene Molloy’s hat shop.
Struthers sings in a brassy tone that sometimes sounds craggy, and she doesn’t always hit her high notes. Yet on Thursday, she closed Act I with some impressive belting in the pivotal Before the Parade Passes By, which is preceded by Dolly telling her dead husband Ephraim she’s ready to rejoin the land of the living.
Lauren Blackman has a stunning operatic voice as Irene, a younger widow who is a milliner. Her singing in the numbers Ribbons Down My Back and It Only Takes a Moment is breathtakingly romantic.
Also sweet is the ensemble’s work in Dancing, in which Dolly teaches the clerks to dance in preparation for a night of fun at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant.
Tony Triano, formerly the understudy to John O’Creagh as Vandergelder, is perfectly grumpy but never cartoonish as the half-a-millionaire, which makes him all the more believable when he finally softens. Triano replaced O’Creagh — who had performed opposite Struthers in a previous regional production of Hello, Dolly! — after O’Creagh was hit by a car as he was walking near the theater in Columbia, S.C., in November. O’Creagh is recuperating, but was unable to rejoin the tour.
In Akron, Struthers was clearly having the most fun in the elaborate restaurant scene, where she performs her spirited signature number, Hello, Dolly!, with adoring waiters. Struthers even offered an encore of their duck walk, executed stylishly in a line.
In this extended scene, Dolly toys mercilessly with Vandergelder while also keeping her eye on three young couples, two of whom are dining behind a private curtain. The waiters’ and chefs’ dancing and acrobatics are delightful in the Waiters’ Gallop as they rev up for Dolly’s arrival.
Struthers adds a droll touch to the end of the scene as Dolly continues to stuff her face and drink wine for minutes on end at the fine restaurant, even after the rest of the cast has been arrested, gone to court and is waiting for her to show up.
As comical as Struthers’ Dolly is, she’s nevertheless believably overwhelmed with emotion once Horace finally lets down his grumpy-man facade and lets her know how much he needs her. It’s finally the matchmaker’s turn, and Struthers’ tears of relief feel so real, the audience gets a satisfying emotional payoff to end a delightfully old-fashioned evening at the theater.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.