Is there a more entrepreneurial and resourceful businesswoman in the theater than New York widow Dolly Levi? Dolly has a card, an angle and the answer for any service you might need, whether it be dance instruction, writing, law or matchmaking. And as embodied by Regina Marie Williams in Theater Latté Da's "Hello, Dolly!" she also has the magnetism and oomph to make us believers in all of her skills.
Jerry Herman's 1964 musical is so often produced by schools and community theaters we sometimes forget its potential for grandness. Well, director Kelli Foster Warder's production of "Dolly" that opened Saturday at the Ritz Theater is a reminder and a triumph. Gorgeous costumes, snazzy choreography and terrific performances combine to make this show one of the new year's must-sees. If it lacks anything, it's more. We could use more of Williams' duet with T. Mychael Rambo on the title song and perhaps more of that fetching dance, also choreographed by Foster Warder.
"Dolly" has a reputation for being a star vehicle for showboaters. The title role, which has been played by the likes of Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, requires some swanning about and mugging, including a grand entrance down a staircase for the title song. Stars can get away with essentially playing themselves.
Not at Latté Da. Dressed in Rich Hamson's parade-worthy period costumes, including a gaudy assortment of hats, and performing with stately command, Williams imbues this Dolly with authority, charm and touches of vulnerability.
As Dolly talks to the spirit of her dead husband, she shows us how, under that indefatigable exterior, Dolly battles loneliness, and is ready to embrace living fully again after being a widow. Primarily a matchmaker — book writer Michael Stewart adapted the story from Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker" — she decides to find a match for herself. Her object of desire is Horace Vandergelder (Rambo), a sour widower who keeps a shop in Yonkers. Vandergelder does not stand a chance.
Rambo works hard in this show, matching Williams vocally for charisma and giving Vandergelder a kindness and grace that we don't ordinarily associate with this character. Then again, the whole production is big on generosity.
That's true of "It Only Takes a Moment," the sweet duet by China Brickey and Reed Sigmund. Sigmund and Brian Kim McCormick, who play Vandergelder's clerks, inject a lot farcical physical humor into the production while Janely Rodriguez cries her eyeballs out as Ermengarde, Vandergelder's teenage niece.
Eli Sherlock's efficient set, outlined by Edison bulbs, include turntables on either end used for restaurant booths and shops. And music director Sanford Moore's tight quintet delivers a bigger, fuller sound than their paltry numbers suggest.
"Dolly" is usually staged with a cast much bigger than the dozen players onstage at the Ritz. But Latté Da has a knack for distilling big musicals to their essence without seeming to lose much. One way that's achieved is through actors doubling, tripling, even quadrupling up on their roles.
And in "Dolly," that's an opportunity for well-earned laughs for Sally Wingert, who stands out for her quick succession of parts in a sequence that starts with good-time girl Ernestina Money, who has been set up on a date with Vandergelder. Ernestina does the hoochie coochie in her soup with a spoon. Next, Wingert plays the chef at the same restaurant where Vandergelder is on his date. Soon after, she's the bewigged, moustache-wearing magistrate presiding over the case after things go awry. Wingert finds comic gold in the neck-snapping changes.
Her turn alone is worth the price of a ticket to this altogether joyful throwback "Dolly!"
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.