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Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s Hello, Dolly! had the requisite chops for a long Broadway run. Add in the Hall of Famers who eventually played the lead, including Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, and Ethel Merman (who turned down the original Dolly), and you insure immortality.

Not by design, but Dolly! also hit Broadway when it was most needed. The musical opened January 16, 1964, less than two months after the JFK assassination. The country was shattered, and along came Dolly Gallagher Levi, a garrulous meddler who could fix everything from faulty plumbing to varicose veins to deflated egos; she could heal and make connections and could banish, if only for an evening, the woes of shaken spectators.

And “Holy Cabooses” is this musical innocent! Cornelius Hackl, 33, and Barnaby Tucker, 19, work 16-hour days for “rich, friendless, and mean” Horace Vandergelder. They want to make a memory, have one unforgettable experience. So they’ll don their Sunday best, play hooky from the store, and spend a day, and their savings, in New York. If things really work out, Cornelius will not only have a good meal, be in danger, and go broke, he’ll also get to “kiss a girl.”

Cornelius aims for the stars. Barnaby’d have a perfect day if he could see New York’s famous stuffed whale.

Of course Vandergelder (geld, in German, means money) can’t allow such frivolity. He’s such a hoarder of goods — and emotions — that even “weeping is a waste of water.” He says if someone has to live hand to mouth, they’d better be “ambidextrous.” Vandergelder’s just a few humbugs short of Scrooge, but he, too, has caught the frivolity bug and is off to New York to find a mate. New York milliners for whom a hat with ribbons down the back is risqué, Irene Molloy and Minnie Fay have been respectable for years. Adventure calls.

Though probably inaccurate, or just my projection, it’s hard not to see a leap from the uptight ’50s to the freewheelin’ ’60s in the musical, since everyone opens up and sheds an old skin — even Dolly, who’s been clinging to her departed husband and a bygone past.

Jeanne Reith’s late-19th-Century costumes for Lamb’s Players accentuate the constriction: the women are corseted and covered from hat to toe, the men bow-tied and vested, and both sport so many layers of clothing that the stuffed whale may be more mobile. But combine the apparel with Colleen Kollar Smith’s click-your-heels choreography, and a transformation occurs. The cast spins and leaps about as if released from bondage.

Kerry Meads plays Dolly not as a myth, or star vehicle, but as an actual person with a special gift she isn’t quite sure how to manage (Meads’s ensemble instincts may have toned the part down, but it’s an interesting take and makes things a bit more in doubt). Meads has vocal difficulties, especially with the score’s steep intervals, but has an engaging rapport with the audience.

Though he could put more mudge into Vandergelder’s curmudgeonness, David Cochran Heath scores as the parsimonious burgher from Yonkers. Lance Arthur Smith and Colleen Kollar Smith, real-life husband and wife, combine for the stirring “It Only Takes a Moment,” the epicenter of the musical’s shift from life battened down to sailing free.

Mike Buckley, who designed the excellent, micro-realist set for Fences at Cygnet, gives Dolly! a brocade façade that, when warmed by Bill Kickbush’s lighting, becomes an apt backdrop for Yonkers or Manhattan’s posh Harmonia Gardens restaurant. In a special cameo, Leonard Patten scat-sings Louis Armstrong’s version of the — zap-adoop-mm — title song.

* * *

FIELD NOTES:

1.) PAYING TRIBUTE: At our awards ceremony last month, the San Diego Critics Circle honored the Old Globe’s, and now the world’s, Jack O’Brien (who, among future projects, will direct Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to Phantom of the Opera). The video tribute to O’Brien is now on the website: sdcriticscircle.org. It includes the voice of Tom Stoppard (whose presence validates all our parking stickers) and a musical number, by Melinda Gilb and Steve Gunderson, that’s a royal hoot.

2.) BAD NEWS, GOOD NEWS: Live theater’s so transitory that when a quality production has to close, the loss feels palpable. We’ve already had three first-rate shows this year, and two ended last weekend: New Village Arts’s This Is Our Youth (with a splendidly detailed performance by Joshua Everett Johnson) and Ion’s stark, spellbinding Pillowman, which was just beginning to get the audiences it deserved. (Henry Miller said, “The role of an artist is to inoculate the world with disillusionment.” By that definition, Martin McDonagh, author of The Pillowman, is a major artist).

The good news: Cygnet has been able to extend its run of Fences through March 2. If you get a chance, go. Treat yourself.

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Comments

SD Feb. 21, 2008 @ 1:15 a.m.

Hi Jeff,

This is off topic, but I am curious to know if you have seen the latest effort from the Wooster Group, doing Hamlet (saw it last week in L.A.). I find their work always merits quite a bit of comment/discussion. What are your thoughts?

It would be refreshing if the Reader would allow you to comment in depth on offerings in L.A. as well as home base. What do you say we move the discussion up a few?

Suzanne D.

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Jeff Smith Feb. 21, 2008 @ 11:52 a.m.

JEFF SMITH RESPONDS: Suzanne, go off the topic any time! I've always been a fan of the Woosters, back to the Spalding Gray days, and would like to see what they're doing with Hamlet. I hear it's a "remix" - might draw insights in unexpected ways. But San Diego theater's so healthy, of late, I have few chances to get away.

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