By Bob Feldheim
It happens, oh so rarely, that you leave the theatre post-show in a state of euphoria, overcome by something magical. You’ve morphed into — became one with — the performers you just finished cheering on-stage.
I experienced it on “Hello, Dolly” opening night at the Limelight. It swept over me mid-way through Act 2, after Kristin Pidcock, as the indomitable matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi, had clearly re-certified her musical singing/acting star credentials, established two years earlier as Lady in the Lake in Limelight’s “Spamalot” and now again in Act 1, with rousing numbers including “It Takes A Woman; “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”; “Ribbons Down My Back”; “Before The Parade Passes By.”
Now, here, Dolly’s returning, after a prolonged absence, to her many friends in her old stomping ground, the rarified atmosphere of the Harmonia Gardens restaurant. Bedecked in a dazzling sequined gold evening gown with all the fixin’s, she’s smiling radiantly as she sashays confidently down the steps. Upon first sighting, Dolly is greeted by several dozen uniformed waiters, cooks, doormen, wine stewards and four tables of dining guests with a rousing rendition of the title song, with spirited, pulse-pounding orchestra and choreographed accompaniment:
Well, hello, Dolly, It’s so nice to have you back where you belong.
You’re lookin’ swell, Dolly, I can tell, Dolly
You’re still glowin’, You’re still crowin’. You’re still goin’ strong.
I feel that room swayin’; While the band’s playin’
One of your old favourite songs from way back when.
So take her wrap, fellas. Find her an empty lap, fellas
Dolly’ll never go away again
The emotion that song “Hello, Dolly!” produces (the Director, Blake Osner, names it one of the best musical show numbers, ever), in that atmosphere of sheer exuberance — the singing, syncopated dancing, swaying, all-out happiness — defies description. There she is, center stage, absorbing the waves of affection, from everyone – on stage as well as in the sellout audience, myself included.
Kristin, we adore you! You’re our luminous star! We’re so proud to have you back where you belong! You’re what makes St. Augustine theatre so unique, so precious, so memorable.
The role of Dolly Levi was originally written for Ethel Merman, but she turned it down, as did Mary Martin (although each eventually played it). Eventually, David Merrick hired Carol Channing, who then created in Dolly her signature role.
With Jerry Herman’s score (he also composed the scores for “Mame” and “La Cage aux Folles”), Gower Champion’s direction and Carol Channing’s enduring performance “Hello Dolly” opened in January 1964 and reached an astounding 2,844 performances. (Channing was still performing Dolly in 1996, at age 85.) The show has become one of the most enduring musical theatre hits, enjoying three Broadway revivals and international success. It was also made into 1969 film, with Barbara Streisand starring as Dolly and Walter Matthau as Horace.
The Limelight cast assembled by director Blake Osner is huge and boasts extraordinary talent in every facet:
Peter Gutierrez is perfect as grumpy, “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder, the object of Dolly’s personal marital ambition. His booming voice and physicality bring Walter Matthau to mind.
Horace’s much-intimidated store clerks Cornelius and Barnaby are played enthusiastically and exceptionally well by Tim Colee and Craig Wickless.
Lovely blonde Megan Morton is the hat shoppe proprietor Irene Malloy. Her singing is angelic.
Chase Lawless and Ella Romaine are the lost-in-love artist Ambrose Kemper and Ermengarde, Horace’s continuously weeping niece.
Long-time Limelight favorite Cathy O’Brien shows up, finally (and memorably) in Act 2, as Ernestina Money. An heiress with a viper’s nature and tongue, she’s been sent by Dolly to meet Horace. She is quickly turned off by Horace and leaves, as Dolly had planned she would.
Tall, bald, black-bearded James Desmond, who has appeared in many recent Limelight productions, is Rudolph Weisenweber, the restaurant’s tough, intense head waiter. He orders his service crew to be “twice as lightning” (“The Waiters’ Gallop”) when Dolly returns.
Credit for the intricate staging and imaginative, enthusiastic choreography must go to well-known St. Augustine dance instructors/directors Stephanie Burkhardt (The Dance Company), and Carole Dickens (St. Johns County Center for the Arts at Murray Middle).
The youthful ensemble — dancing, singing, whirling about — generated a level of excitement where it might otherwise have been a bit listless.
And the costumes! — the jaw-dropping, luxurious, early-l900s gowns particularly — are the remarkable achievement of Samantha Mack and Alison Zador.
Noteworthy, too, is the introduction of body mikes at the Limelight.
Everyone in the cast with something to say wore one. What a difference! Congratulations to Sound Designer Andrew Crews, Executive Director Beth Lambert, Board President Scott Bartosch and the entire Board for biting the bullet. (They are to be congratulated, too, for approving the huge expenditure required for the rights to produce “Hello Dolly.” Lambert confided to the first night audience that it cost an astonishing $8,000 — just for the rights!)
Musical Director Shelli Long was at the keyboard, leading a five-piece off-stage orchestra.
John Bondi designed the set. Construction and painting were handled by Domenic and Nancy Grasso and their crews. Beautiful lighting was designed by Miles Mosher.
Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday through July 5, with no show July 4, and two shows July 5. Tickets are $25 per person. Call 904-825-1164 or go to limelight-theatre.org