The national tour of “Hello, Dolly!”, now launching from Playhouse Square’s Connor Palace, is a joyfully sweet, old-fashioned extravaganza.

Leading the production in the title role is Broadway legend Betty Buckley, who brings a brassy alto voice and a delightful verve to Dolly Levi. The matchmaker character has been a star vehicle for stage royalty from Carol Channing and Ethel Merman to Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters.

From the moment Buckley’s Dolly arrived on stage Friday in a horse-drawn streetcar (with two sets of human legs in a horse costume), the opening night crowd went wild. The Playhouse Square audience enjoyed adoring Buckley, and she soaked it up.

It was a lovely synergy between stage and audience as this larger-than-life character was also adored by the other characters. In this tale set in 1885, based on Thornton Wilder's farce "The Matchmaker," "professional meddler" and widow Dolly Levi makes a living helping others find love.

The beautiful thing about her character is that under the life-affirming Dolly's influence, everyone's eyes are opened to the possibility of love. She's a master manipulator when it comes to matters of the heart, but does so in a delightful manner that makes people embrace the best in themselves.

Ironically, for all the joy Dolly spreads, she has not moved on from mourning her late husband, Ephraim. Buckley creates the character's most touching moments in monologues to Ephraim, in which she asks permission to rejoin the living.

She expresses that sentiment in the famous anthem "Before the Parade Passes By." Dolly actually has designs to marry cranky "famous half-a-millionaire" client Horace Vandergelder, for whom she's ostensibly arranging a match.

Famed character actor Lewis Stadlen is a hoot as the curmudgeonly Horace, from his character's sexist notions in "It Takes a Woman" to his wonderful, front-of-curtain tune starting Act II, in which Horace explains how he became rich in "Penny in My Pocket."

Each time I see this show, I gain more appreciation for how witty its book by Michael Stewart is. The show opened on Broadway in 1964 and has had four Broadway revivals. The latest, starring Midler, which won four Tony Awards, closed in August.

In the current tour, Nic Rouleau brings the most heart-stopping, golden vocals in his adorably innocent role as Cornelius Hackl, the 33-year-old store clerk who’s never tasted romance. He and Jess LeProtto as clerk Barnaby Tucker make a wonderful comedic duo, with Tucker wowing the audience with his acrobatic dance.

The men's ensemble sings beautifully, with a rich choral quality. But they take the cake with their fabulous dancing in the showstopper "The Waiters Gallop" as the enthusiastic staff at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant readies for their beloved Dolly's arrival.

Choreography by Gower Champion is a joy, especially in the ballet-based "Dancing" as the cast prepares for a night on the town, and in the fun "The Contest" later at the restaurant.

All the women are really running the show in this story. Serving as a lovely foil to Buckley's Dolly is Analisa Leaming as hat maker Irene Molloy, a young widow who wants to bring some spice back into her life. She sings the score's most expressive, romance-yearning song -- "Ribbons Down My Back."

Period-style costumes by Santo Loquasto are splendid, spiced up with vivid pinks, purples, yellows and blues for the ensemble. Loquasto is also the designer of gorgeously painted backdrops that depict New York and Yonkers street scenes.

There's plenty to love in the tour of this classic, which runs in Cleveland through Oct. 21. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1:30 and 6:30 p.m. this Sunday, and a final show at 1:30 p.m. only Oct. 21. Call 216-241-6000 or see www.playhousesquare.org.

 

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.