THEATER REVIEW : Channing's Fans Clamor: 'Hello, Dolly!' : The Star's Enthusiasm Can't Mask the Age of the Musical


Have you ever wondered why Carol Channing is still doing "Hello, Dolly!" after more than 4,500 performances, at 74 years of age? You need only see her face when the applause comes rolling over the footlights, and you will understand. Applause is mother's milk to Channing. No, it's oxygen. It's air .

You have only until Sunday to see her, and the show, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. "Hello, Dolly!" stops briefly here on a 30-city tour that will conclude with Channing once again on Broadway, where she was honored Sunday with a Tony Award for lifetime achievement. The show will also play Pasadena's Civic Auditorium July 26-30.

When Channing takes the circular runway in front of the orchestra pit (just as she did in the original 1964 production) and gets her face close to her fans, she beams. Seeing that famous smile, the wide mouth that doesn't turn up but only gets wider, the crowd goes nuts. Then she directs her huge eyes to the balcony and looks as if she's seeing the best fireworks on the happiest Fourth of July of her life.

Dolly Levi, the heroine of one of the most successful musicals of all time, is a turn-of-the-century matchmaker who pretends to be fixing up wealthy Horace Vandergelder (Jay Garner) when all the time she is really entrapping him for herself.

You can feel the audience pulling for her, hoping for her, being protective of her. Not for Dolly, but for Channing. The cast appears to worship her. Like the audience, the cast seems to understand it is seeing an icon--Channing descending the staircase while a dozen green-suited waiters sing the rousing title song, welcoming her back where she belongs. She wears a red headpiece with sky-high plumes, a black choker dripping with rubies, white gloves to the elbow and a glittering red dress that exposes her shoulders, the shoulders of a legend.

But . . .

Saying this is like being the Grinch who stole Christmas, but it's my job and someone has to do it. "Hello, Dolly!" has not aged well. Director Lee Roy Reams (who performed Cornelius opposite Channing in yet another Broadway revival of the show) is not at all interested in blowing off the dust, as, say, Michael Ockrent did in his 1986 revival of "Me and My Girl." This is a museum-careful replica. Even Gower Champion's choreography, which enraptured reviewers at the time, now feels set in stone from another era and no longer breathes. The dancers often look as if they're afraid of breaking some sacred tradition whose original function they can no longer remember.

The songs have fared better. In 1964, John Chapman, reviewing in the New York Daily News, wrote: "I wouldn't say that Jerry Herman's music and lyrics are memorable and some aren't rememorable." Whoops! The score remains perhaps the standard of the old-school, feel-good musical.

Here, though, the songs sound like Norma Desmond declaring, "I am big! It's the orchestras that got small!" The music sounds tinny and over-amplified in this huge theater, making even the overture, that traditional call to high spirits, depressing.

There's nothing wrong with Channing's spirits, however. She responds to the spirit of Dolly as a parched woman to a long, cold drink. In one speech, Dolly recalls an old leaf she found pressed in a Bible, a leaf without color or life. "I suddenly realized that I was like that leaf," she says, "and so I have decided to rejoin the human race [read: the show]. . . . Before it all moves on and only I'm left." The tears that spring to her eyes are like totems that she offers up to the hungry gods of theater.

Channing eloquently explained her view of the show in a recent Times interview. "This is my cathedral, " she said. "I believe in this. . . . This is more real to me than the factual world."

As a bonus to her fans, Channing delivers a charming curtain speech. The audience eats her up, telling her, in effect, "it's so nice to have you back where you belong." Find her an empty lap, fellas. She might very well be exhausted.

* "Hello, Dolly!," Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tonight-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $19-$47. (714) 556-ARTS, (714) 740-2000, (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.


Carol Channing: Dolly Gallagher Levi Monica M. Wemitt: Ernestina James Darrah: Ambrose Kemper Jay Garner: Horace Vandergelder Christine DeVito: Ermengarde Michael DeVries: Cornelius Hackl Cory English: Barnaby Tucker Lori Ann Mahl: Minnie Fay Florence Lacey: Irene Molloy Steve Pudenz: Rudolph With: Sharon Moore, Michele Tibbitts, Elizabeth Green, Julian Brightman, Bill Bateman,den Michaels, John Bantay, Desta Barbieri, Kimberly Bellmann, Bruce Blanchard, Stephen Bourneuf, Holly Cruikshank, Simone Gee, Jason Gillman, Milica Govich, Donald Ives, Dan LoBuono, Jim Madden, Michael Quinn, Robert Randle, Mitch Rosengarten, Mary Setrakian, Clarence M. Sheridan, Randy Slovacek, Roger Preston Smith, Ashley Stover.

A production of Orange County Performing Arts Center and Manny Kladitis, Magic Promotions & Theatricals and Pace Theatrical Group. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Michael Stewart. Original production directed and choreographed by Gower Champion. Directed and staged by Lee Roy Reams. Sets by Oliver Smith. Lighting by Ken Billington. Costumes by Jonathan Bixby. Sound by Peter J. Fitzgerald. Orchestrations by Philip J. Lang. Production stage manager Thomas P. Carr.

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