On the heels of "Next to Normal," a challenging musical about mental illness, Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace returns to more familiar, audience-friendly fare with its enjoyable revival of Jerry Herman's cheery tuner "Hello, Dolly!" about a late 19th century New York matchmaker's effort to get her clients -- and herself -- happily wed.
Starring as Dolly Levi in director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell's pleasant, pretty production is Broadway veteran Karen Ziemba, a charismatic performer whose bona fides include a 2000 Tony Award for "Contact." Toning down the flamboyance audiences typically associate with the role, Ziemba makes Dolly more natural, more relatable. That's especially evident in "So Long, Dearie," where Dolly gives curmudgeonly half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (the ever reliable David Lively) his walking papers -- although the send-off is all part of the meddler's master plan.
"Hello Dolly"★ ★ ★
Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111 or drurylaneoakbrook.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 5, 2014
Running time: About two hours, 10 minutes, with intermission
Tickets: $35-$49; senior and student discounts available; dinner-theater options available
Parking: Free adjacent lot and pay valet service
Rating: For all ages
But for all Ziemba's personality, her performance seems wary. In fact, the entire production -- as well-sung and well-choreographed as it is -- lacks the vigor we've come to expect from Drury Lane and Rockwell, whose cast seems to be performing at something less than their peak. That said, I expect the show will become livelier as the run continues and the performers settle into their roles. "Dolly" demands no less than top form.
What's needed is an infusion of energy, like that displayed by Drury Lane newcomers in the show, adapted by book writer Michael Stewart from Thornton Wilder's play "The Matchmaker." These include the winsome Maggie Portman, a Chicago storefront veteran who plays milliner's assistant Minnie Fay, and Lee Slobotkin, a spunky young actor who plays clerk Barnaby Tucker. Also deserving mention is Holly Stauder's pitch-perfect cameo as the garish Ernestina, one of Horace's ill-suited marriage prospects.
As Barnaby's older co-worker Cornelius Hackl, a feed store clerk eager for a big-city adventure, Jeff Diebold is tentative at first but comes into his own in the second act with the lovely "It Only Takes a Moment." For pure vocal finesse, there's the sweet-voiced Emily Rohm, as the widowed haymaker Irene Molloy. She is eager for a romantic adventure of her own as expressed in the lilting "Ribbons Down My Back."
Those gems -- together with up-tempo charmers "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," "Dancing" and the titular standard -- remind us where the strength of this show truly resides. It's the score, which sounds marvelous under music director Roberta Duchek and conductor Ben Johnson.
Rockwell's ideas -- from the bold, highflying, Broadway-style choreography to the locomotive that carries the characters to their destiny in New York City -- are plentiful and clever. Her dancers are exceptional, as evidenced by the waiters' exhausting, exhilarating Harmonia Gardens "Gallop" which stopped the show and rightfully so.
Theresa Ham earns kudos for her gorgeous costumes, including her feathered, bedazzled, beribboned hats. And Kevin Depinet's highly ornamental set, with its backdrop comprised of 1890s picture postcards, marks yet another triumph for the designer.