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August 12, 2014

Muny review: 'Hello, Dolly!' is bursting with charm and talent

Sassy and classy, "Hello, Dolly!" looks swell in a stylish production that ends the Muny's bold, breezy summer. They swing for the fences, and wind up with a home-run derby.

Jerry Herman's tuneful adaptation of Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker" is the kind of big, splashy musical that The Muny does best. Bravo to a top-shelf creative team and finely-tuned ensemble for breathing new life into a shiny American bauble, now celebrating its 50th anniversary.

This grand-scale "Hello, Dolly!" bursts with charm and good humor, and director Rob Ruggiero capitalized on his cast's exceptional comedic skills.

Muny favorites, and mine, too, are absolute perfection: Tony winner Beth Leavel ("The Drowsy Chaperone") in a superb tour-de-force as the brassy, meddling matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi; tall, cool drink of water John O'Hurley ("Seinfeld"), smooth and wry as grouchy half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder; and versatile Rob McClure ("The Addams Family") as sweet Cornelius Hackl, who wants more out of life than always working at the Hay and Feed store.

Jay Armstrong Johnson as the nervous, curious Barnaby Tucker ("Pirates!") and lovely Mamie Parris ("Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat") as the pragmatic widow Irene Malloy are both winning in their second Muny go-rounds. Making stellar debuts are Eloise Kropp as the excitable Minnie Fay and Daniel Berryman as the lovestruck Ambrose, with local teen regular Berklea Going hamming it up as weepy Ermengarde.

You'll be able to spy metro-east's talented pre-teens Michael Harp and Maria Knasel in the youth chorus from the opening number "Call on Dolly" onto the smashing finale.

While the show belongs to Leavel, with her robust portrayal and mischievous twinkle in her eye, dynamic duo Johnson and McClure steal scenes as the earnest clerks yearning for adventure. During their one day in Manhattan, these funny guys display their flair for slapstick as they get into big-city pickles. Nimble dancers and strong singers, the energetic pair won our hearts in "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," "Elegance" and "Dancing." McClure also delivers a heartwarming "It Only Takes a Moment."

With crisp staging and snappy choreography by Ralph Perkins , each production number is ravishing, and the exuberent "Before the Parade Passes By" features a magnificent appearance by the O'Fallon Township High School Marching Panthers.

"The Waiters' Gallop" is such a stunner that the audience broke into applause several times throughout the acrobatic high-spirited number.

Nevertheless, the title song is the ultimate showstopper, and Ruggiero has staged it with breath-taking panache.

Leavel dazzled in a copper-sequined gown as she made her stately entrance on an elegant staircase. That spectacular visual was met with cheers and thunderous applause. The audience also reacted favorably when she sang with an occasional growl as a homage to Louis Armstrong.

In fact, the crowd's response to all the special touches grew louder and longer with each number.

Of particular note is the impressive costume design by Amy Clark, capturing the 1895 period in various society aspects, and the silky music direction by James Moore ("West Side Story"). The scenic design by Michael Schweikardt is an extraordinary rendering of turn-of-the-century New York and rural Yonkers.

The beloved show is a fun finish to another memorable summer characterized by Artistic Director and Executive Director Mike Isaacson's innovative moves and superb casting choices.

To be honest, I was a tad skeptical when the season was announced, with the emphasis on young shows like "Tarzan" and "Seussical," but they won me over with outstanding production values and solid ensembles. I don't doubt that Isaacson can get the best possible people to flourish here.

This "Hello, Dolly!", however, will go down as one of its best ever. The show hasn't been seen in Forest Park since 2007, and was certainly ready for Ruggiero's patented pizzazz and the great talent that immersed themselves in one of Broadway's finest musicals. There is a reason why this show, which won 10 Tonys, endures. What a way to end the 96th season!

At a glance

What: "Hello, Dolly!"

When: 8:15 nightly through Sunday

Where: The Muny in St. Louis' Forest Park

Tickets: 618-361-1900;

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