It takes a woman—Heidi Kettenring—to make Marriott’s “Dolly” shine

Photo by Liz Lauren

The quintessential moment in Marriott Theatre’s hilariously entertaining new production of Hello, Dolly comes about halfway through the second act. As Dolly (a completely in-her-element Heidi Kettenring), the widowed matchmaker (and whatever else she chooses to be at any given moment), finally comes to the culmination of a complicated and convoluted plot to obtain a match for herself, we find ourselves at dinner in one of New York’s most exclusive restaurants (called the Harmonia Gardens). It is there where the waiters gather to welcome their favorite customer with the iconic “Hello, Dolly,” but that number, excellent as it is, can’t measure up to the electric energy of the hyperspeed “The Waiters’ Gallop,” in which the show’s talented ensemble, led by director/choreographer Denis Jones, whirls and spins and bounces around the stage with various food items to prove that they indeed have the fastest service in the city. And the most stunningly exciting.

Jones’ Dolly shines from opening to close, and Kettenring, one of Chicago’s most talented performers and a regular at Marriott who is married to the show’s male lead, David C. Girolmo, is the main reason. I’ve enjoyed her performances over the years, but this role really allows her to play to all of her strengths, including her sharp comedic skills. (One scene in which everyone onstage and off sits for what seems like several minutes and watches her slowly and meticulously polish off a turkey dinner is such a virtuoso performance that it is worthy of a Jeff nod all by itself.) She simply takes over every scene she is in (which of course is most of them), as you’d expect this self-assured character to do. And (of course) her rapport with Girolmo, who plays the object of Dolly’s plan, the gruff Horace Vandergelder, is perfect.

This is not a one or two-actor show, though. In fact, it is very nearly stolen at times by the two men playing Vandergelder’s clerks, men who (despite living in Yonkers) have never been to New York City and (despite one of them being 33 years old) have never kissed a woman or a girl. Once they do manage to sneak off to the city, Alex Goodrich (as Cornelius Hackl) and Spencer Davis Milford (as the younger Barnaby Tucker, who is more excited about seeing a whale in a museum than for the potential of that kiss) add pure joy, humor, and a ton of dancing ability (especially Milford) to their every scene. After Dolly “teaches” them to dance—in one of her many occupations, she is a dance instructor—Milford in particular just soars, flying all over the stage like Gene Kelly. (Audience members around me were mesmerized by him.) And when these innocents manage to meet young women who instantly like them—isn’t musical theatre wonderful?—both Goodrich and Milford manage to make their characters so appealing that even after the women discover that they are poor clerks, not the rich playboys they are pretending to be, it makes perfect sense for their love to remain intact and unaffected. And Goodrich’s heartfelt and lovely rendition of “It Only Takes a Moment” simply seals the deal.

As the young women in question, Rebecca Hurd and Amanda Walker are wonderfully appealing. Hurd’s Mrs. Malloy, bored widowed proprietor of a millinery shop, and Walker’s sillier and less cosmopolitan Minnie Fay as her assistant, are nothing alike, really, but they both are easily drawn to the sweet sincerity of these two men who wander into their shop and instantly need to hide from Vandergelder, who arrives to woo Mrs. Malloy. (The scene with the four younger people trying to keep Vandergelder in the dark is always hilarious, and this version certainly doesn’t disappoint.)

There was a mechanical malfunction with Marriott’s hydraulic lifts in its stage floor, so unfortunately I was not able to see Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s and Milo Bue’s set design in its fullest glory, but its simple evocation of early 20th Century elegance still felt right and unencumbered by Marriott’s theatre-in-the-square structure, which makes set design a challenge. Theresa Ham’s costumes are outstanding (though the red outfit created for Dolly’s big restaurant reveal is a bit underwhelming, as lovely as it is), and Miguel A. Armstrong’s and Megan Pirtle’s wigs are excellent. (It actually took me a few moments to realize how many of the waiters were being played by women!) The nine-piece Marriott orchestra, led by Brad Haak, is stellar as always.

This show, however, belongs to Kettenring and Jones.

Kettenring’s Dolly Levi is fun, enthusiastic, and a bit enigmatic—perfect qualities for this iconic character. Her at times impenetrably labyrinthine plot to get Vendergelder to fall for her is presented as such a fully worked-out design on her part that we just sit back and joyfully watch it play out, reverses and all, without ever wondering what she sees in the hay-and-feed dealer beyond his “half-a-millionaire” status. Girolmo has a ton of fun enhancing his Vandergelder’s unappealing qualities: he is misogynistic, self-absorbed, caustic, cheap, and an absolutely thoughtless employer. Under that, though, Dolly sees a man capable of loving and caring…and she devises a scheme to help her to bring him out, never doubting that she will succeed.

Jones’ direction and choreography is nothing short of vibrant. He is able to bring out the fun in even the poorest-drawn characters. Playwright Michael Stewart didn’t do much to help the poor actress playing Ermengarde (or to explain why Michael Turrentine’s Ambrose Kemper would want to marry her), but Jones manages to find ways to help Emily Ann Brooks give full “I am Groot” meaning to her repeated whining. And Johanna McKenzie Miller’s portrayal of the one-dimensional Ernestina is totally hilarious, a tribute to both actor and director. Jones, who shows himself as adept at quieter choreography as he is in the chaotically joyful “Waiters’ Gallop” and the beautiful “Dancing,” treats us to an Act Two-opening “Elegance” that is both wistful and charming, as well as to the brilliant and subtle movement of “I Put My Hand In” and the emotional power of “Before the Parade Passes By” (which takes advantage of Kettenring’s passionate performance).

Hydraulics or not, this is one Dolly you will be glad to have said “hello” to. Tickets are available at Marriott Theatre for performances now through Oct. 16. For other reviews, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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