Kelli Foster Warder had just supervised a sneak preview of "Hello, Dolly!," which opens Saturday. And she was in pain.
"My face was literally hurting because I was smiling so much," said the director/choreographer, who proposed the joyful show a couple of years ago during season planning at Theater Latté Da, where she is an artistic associate.
"I very hesitantly said, 'I'm not sure if this is a Latté Da show but I think it could be very cool.' The pitch was 'Hello, Dolly!' Very quickly followed by, 'with Regina Marie Williams,'" Warder said.
The Yonkers, N.Y.-set musical had been a huge hit on Broadway with Bette Midler, then Bernadette Peters, as Dolly. So it didn't take a lot to convince the room. But, as Warder recalls, "The first thing Peter [Rothstein, who recently announced his resignation as artistic director] said was, 'You'd better give Regina a call.'"
Williams was an immediate yes, so the creative team got to work imagining a production that would be conscious of the fact that Williams is Black. (Pearl Bailey played Dolly in the 1960s, but the production barely acknowledged her Blackness.)
Every business owner in this "Dolly" is Black, not just the entrepreneurial title character, a matchmaker. There's also bad-tempered feed store proprietor Horace Vandergelder (Warder says that villain is played by "maybe the most likable person who ever lived," T. Mychael Rambo) and milliner Irene Molloy (China Brickey). Others in the cast include Reed Sigmund as ebullient Cornelius, Brian Kim McCormick as wide-eyed Barnaby and Sally Wingert in various small roles.
"The late 1890s and early 1900s was an amazing time for Black-owned businesses, probably not in Yonkers, but my feeling was we existed and why not highlight that?" said Warder, adding that alterations to the script are so subtle that no one is likely to notice them. "It is true there would be a woman who was a widow like Dolly, working to make her way however she could, a go-getter who was figuring out a way forward. So let's celebrate the way we wish the world looked."
"For instance, what would the conversation be around Black-owned businesses? I was talking with a person who has been very successful on Broadway and they said in period pieces, it's not true to the story to cast people of different races and I was like, 'Well, we were there,'" Warder recalled. "I think we've just gotten used to old movies and shows with homogeneous, white casts."
The fresh lens on "Hello, Dolly!" is not just about race. Sigmund, for instance, is a decade older than most actors who play his role, something Warder embraces.
"What I said is, 'Dreams don't stop because you're in your 40s instead of your 30s," said Warder. "In 'Put on Your Sunday Clothes,' we see him thinking, 'What haven't I done yet? What dream haven't I gone for?' It's actually even a little sweeter when someone older, who has put in their time, steps out and gets a little wild."
The 60-year-old lyrics also have taken on new meaning in Cornelius' "It Only Takes a Moment."
"It's a beautiful, beautiful song and the lyrics — 'I've seen women before but today I talked to one, equal to equal' — made us all go, 'Whoa. He meets his equal,' " said Warder. "It's kind of feminist, 'Hello, Dolly!' Who knew?"
Williams told Warder that Dolly had never been her dream role because it didn't seem possible, but actor and director are diving into an interpretation of the title character as an indomitable force, determined to make Yonkers — and the world — a better place.
"You could mistake Dolly, and I think people do, for being a gold digger or something but, when you dig in, Dolly is actually generous," says Warder of the character who is mercenary in her pursuit of wealthy Vandergelder. "That's how she starts but then she meets Ambrose and thinks, 'I'll bring you along.' And then Irene and Cornelius and others and it's, 'How can I bring you all along? How can we all benefit?' "
The way Warder sees it, Dolly is one of those dreamers who achieves her dreams and then holds the door open behind her so others can, too. She does it by embracing unexpected detours.
That's a spirit Warder wants for herself: "By the end, she has created a little family. I feel like that's what I personally have been doing — here's what I think I'm doing, here's something that sidetracked me and threw me off, but that sidetrack is actually really beautiful. So let's go with that."
Warder is confident it's going to be a "great" show. She's also looking for a little more.
"I hope 'Dolly' does bring out audiences who remember Golden Age musicals and are excited to see one," she said. "And I hope they'll see themselves in it, in ways they didn't expect. That's what I always hope for."
Who: Book by Michael Stewart, based on "The Matchmaker," by Thornton Wilder. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Directed by Kelli Foster Warder.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. through March 19.
Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.
Protocol: Masks required only at Wednesday and Sunday performances.
Tickets: $35-$71, 612-339-3003 or latteda.org.