EAST HADDAM — Thornton Wilder was one of the most popular and successful American writers of the 20th Century, collecting three Pulitzers and a National Book Award, and earning enough money to enable him to give up his day job as a prep school teacher. His works like Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey dealt with the ravages of time and fate, and stressed the importance of finding meaning in the opportunities of every day life. To Wilder, human relationships , however transitory in the greater scheme of time, are what give our existence significance.
It was appropriate, therefore, that in 1964, with the Vietnam War heating up, and the country still stunned by the Kennedy assassination, producer David Merrick conceived the idea of using another Wilder play — The Matchmaker — which had enjoyed a healthy Broadway run in the 1950s, as the basis for a rousing, old-fashioned musical. Merrick put together a team of Gower Champion, Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman to create the show, called Hello, Dolly, which he intended to be a star vehicle for the legendary Ethel Merman.
Merman turned the role down initially, and it was Carol Channing who went on to originate the part of the irrepressible Dolly Gallagher Levi. Only after a host of other famous names — including Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey and Phyllis Diller — did Merman eventually did play Dolly, in her final Broadway appearance.
Now audiences have a chance to enjoy a splendid production of the show at Goodspeed, as part of the Opera House’s 50th anniversary celebration. As usual, this small house with the huge vision has pulled out all the stops: Adrian W. Jones’ great visual scenic design, Wade Laboissoniere’s wonderful costuming, and Kelli Barclay’s choreography are all typical of the technical perfectionism Goodspeed is known for.
Add to that some terrific acting in both the principal and ensemble roles and you have a clear winner.
As the irrepressible widowed matchmaker with a card for every occasion and an eye on the main chance, Klea Blackhurst puts her own stamp on the part of Dolly Levi. She has as powerful a presence as Merman, but with her own original panache. Tony Sheldon is an excellent foil in the part of the smug, tight-fisted millionaire Horace Vandergelder, and Ashley Brown is sweet and perky as the widowed milliner Irene Malloy, who isn’t sure she can ever expect to find love again.
That she will find it is all but guaranteed in the person of Spencer Moses as Vandergelder’s brow-beaten chief clerk, and thanks to Dolly the other potential couples will find it too, when they leave bucolic Yonkers for the fleshpots of 1890s New York City.
But the best thing about the show are the big musical numbers performed by the large and very gifted ensemble, including the train ride to New York- in which everyone puts on their Sunday clothes and heads for the big city on a bouncing, jostling train, and especially the show put on by the waiters at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. It’s a feast for the eyes which culminates in the famous title song, which you all know, even if you’ve never seen Hello, Dolly!
So go up to East Haddam — have dinner at some little place on the water, or bring your own picnic — and then sit back and enjoy.
(Performances continue until September 14. Call 860-873-8668 or visit Goodspeed.org for full details including curtain times and ticket prices.)