"I've always been a woman who arranges things--like furniture and daffodils and lives," offers matchmaker Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly."
She's also a woman who's withdrawn from life since the death of her husband, living vicariously through her intervention in the romances of others.
When "Hello, Dolly" first premiered 30 years ago, this musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker" was intended as a joyful celebration of Dolly's re-entry into direct experience when she finally sets her sights on a match for herself.
But that's a central theme harder to distinguish than it should be in the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera's season-opening "Dolly" revival.
Following the company's usual formula of guest artists headlining an ensemble of local performers, the production stars Leslie Easterbrook (best known for her recurring role in the "Police Academy" movies). An agreeable comic actress, Easterbrook speaks convincingly of Dolly's loneliness and her hopes for happiness during a monologue directed heavenward to her departed husband.
But she has trouble packing that soulful longing into composer/lyricist Jerry Herman's classic songs, especially the pivotal "Before the Parade Passes By" in the first-act finale. Without its rousing carpe diem subtext, the ensemble number comes across like a drill-team exercise.
Easterbrook's singing voice is not an ideal match for the role's vocal range, frequently dropping out entirely in the lower registers. But most important, she doesn't project the larger-than-life charisma that makes Dolly a worthy center of our attention.
Focusing on the turn-of-the-century New York scenery offers little diversion. As Horace Vandergelder, the wealthy shopkeeper in search of a wife who becomes the unknowing target of Dolly's affections, Civic Light Opera regular Fred Lehto sustains a single note of pompous blustering devoid of sex appeal, which makes it difficult to fathom Dolly's attraction.
Rose Anna B. Vitetta provides brief comic relief as an overbearing potential match for Vandergelder. The mischievous antics of his two wayward shop assistants are sometimes amusing as well, particularly the attempts by chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Charlie Mach) to pass himself off as a member of the gentry. Angel Benton's androgynously impish Barnaby Tucker, however, proves a borderline irritant.
The bright spot is Pamela Winslow as the widowed Mrs. Molloy, another of Vandergelder's potential spouses, whom Dolly steers toward Cornelius. Winslow's operatic precision in her two main songs sends the production aloft but ultimately leaves us wishing she'd been surrounded with more performers of her caliber.
While the 31-member ensemble certainly packs the expansive Granada Theatre stage with bodies, Ted Sprague's choreography rarely ventures beyond the basics.
As for production values, the enormous line-art period backdrops repainted in black and white by scenic coordinator Jay Michael Jagim supply a classier look than some of the fully constructed sets, though the posh restaurant for the "Hello, Dolly" production number is an eye-catching feast.
Artistic Director Charles Ballinger, who scored a big hit with his staging for last year's "Oklahoma!" proves less adept with the fluffy, effervescent comedy and unabashed warmth that define the breadth and scope of Jerry Herman musicals.
Following on the heels of the Civic's razor-sharp "Evita," "Hello, Dolly" marks an amateurish step backward in the company's quest for more professional stature.
* WHAT: "Hello, Dolly."
* WHERE: Granada Theatre, 1216 State St., Santa Barbara.
* WHEN: Through Oct. 16, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m.; matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
* COST: $24.50 to $32.50.
* CALL: (800) 366-6064.