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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Hello, Dolly!’ thrives on matters of the heart

Sally Struthers is met warmly in Appleton.

PHOTO: Sally Struthers stars in the touring production of “Hello, Dolly!”

APPLETON, Wis., (WFRV) – First of all, “Hello, Dolly!” is a lovely show. That’s why it’s worthy of taking on the road (70 cities!) as a nod to its 50th anniversary.

The show is about second-time love – with two widows and one widower – and an all-out desire to break shackles and find love, finally, at age 33. The characters are worth rooting for and having fun with.

The “Hello, Dolly!” tour is a celebration of success. We don’t celebrate failures. Going in, the audience knows this musical is solid at the core.

The touring production (it’s 4 stars out of 5 good) stars Sally Struthers. Now, going in, you know there is no “Sally Struthers Greatest Hits” album. She is best known as a TV actress, most indelibly from many years ago at that. So you’re not expecting her to sing like a lark. She doesn’t have to. But then again, Struthers doesn’t, either. She’s got a warble at times. But Struthers makes the character of the meddlesome, pushy and lonesome Dolly Gallagher Levi her own in her way – strong of sentiment, with a dusting of comedy.

On opening night Wednesday, the 60 percent filled Fox Cities Performing Arts Center audience gave Struthers a warm standing ovation. The run has one more performance tonight, Thursday, Oct. 31. Info: www.foxcitiespac.org.

SONG LIST: “Call on Dolly,” “I Put My Hand In,” “It Takes a Woman,” “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Ribbons Down My Back,” “Motherhood,” “Dancing,” “Before the Parade Passes By,” “Elegance,” “The Waiters Gallop,” “Hello, Dolly!” “The Polka Contest,” “It Only Takes a Moment,” “So Long Dearie.”

The production has a strong road company. New York is the center of so much talent that this production can be plugged with the right people for the right roles. There’s a bit early on in the show about a short guy and a tall woman – presto, they’re in there. And so on down the line, role after role. The company has to dance (be limber, fast, elegant and even acrobatic) and sing (sending up the rousing “Before the Parade Passes By” and “Hello, Dolly!”) and look good in swell costumes. Tick off those three boxes.

If you want to see the versatility it takes to be a professional music theater performer today, see “Hello, Dolly!”

There’s a little, live orchestra, too, with the music director’s arms at times visible from the pit as he cues singers on stage.

In the featured roles, Matt Wolfe is right on as Cornelius Hackl. Cornelius is the forever put-upon clerk who finally gets fed up with his cheapskate boss, Horace Vandergelder (John O’Creagh). As Cornelius decides enough is enough and takes young clerk Barnaby Tucker (Garett Hawe) from Yonkers to New York City for a fling (with a goal of kissing a girl, oh boy!), the show bursts with comedy, desire and energy because of Wolfe’s performance. All Cornelius feels on seeing and instantly falling in love with widow Irene Malloy (Lauren Blackman) is wonderfully expressed.

The show turns back the clock in two ways. The story looks back to the late 1800s, with steam trains, horse-drawn carriages, a store with a manual cash register, etc. The song, “It Takes a Woman,” reflects past attitudes toward marriage (though it still gets laughs today).

SIDE NOTE: This may be miniscule. A banner is carried in the parade that says “NYPD No. 36.” Maybe such a banner has always been in the show, from 1964 on. Seeing it today, I think “9/11.” It adds a tug to feelings about the show. At least mine.

FUN NOTES: On Broadway, Sally Struthers starred in the female version of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.” That means she worked with Tony Shalhoub, who also was in that production. Shalhoub is the Green Bay native who gained fame and won three Emmy Awards in the TV series “Monk.”

John O’Creagh was in the national tour of “West Side Story” in the role of Doc, the part played on Broadway by Greg Vinkler, artistic director of Door County’s professional Peninsula Players Theatre.

Thornton Wilder wrote “The Matchmaker,” the play upon which “Hello, Dolly!” is based. Wilder was born in Wisconsin, and he’s famous for writing the classic “Our Town.”  

VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072. The seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The stage is 60 feet across and 40 feet high. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level,   a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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