For sheer exuberance, there’s not much that can rival the title number in Jerry Herman’s classic Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! Through the magic of Gower Champion’s choreography, the relentless buildup of the star’s call and response with the staff at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant takes on a fearsome momentum. Beginning as a simple playful list — “You’re looking swell, Manny,” etc. — the scene goes on to contain everything from knee slapping to a kick line and acrobatics. There’s room for an entire rainbow of emotions in this song, too, from the sunniest innocent yellows and pinks to the most salacious purples and even some of the truest blues. What does it take to carry it off? There have been so many great Dollys, from Ethel Merman and Carol Channing to Pearl Bailey, but what do they all have in common? The answer will be easy to see when Sally Struthers takes the Granada Theatre stage this week and shows that to triumph as Dolly, you’ve got to have the charisma of a Broadway star and the imagination of a comic actress.
When I caught up with Struthers by phone recently, she was in Spokane and had just walked over a mile in the snow, but she was upbeat and cheerful as she pored over the details and the history of a show she clearly loves very much. “I first saw Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey,” Struthers recalled. “It was a historic production and an all-black cast. … What I like about this production is the feeling of being at the helm of a big and talented young group,” Struthers said, adding that “the youngest female member of the cast is 19, but she looks 15, and the youngest male is 23, but he looks 17.” Speaking of the scale of this nationally touring production, Struthers said that “including the crew and the drivers, we are on the road with 54 people. It’s a great way to see America.”
Asked about the tour’s reception, Struthers said that although the show “gets a roaring standing ovation every night,” there are big differences between the audiences. “Some audiences you can hear, so that you know when it’s working, but others are quiet, and I want to tell them, ‘We can’t hear you smiling.’” Struthers again emphasized the excitement of traveling across America in this most American of musicals and “meeting people and making friends in every state.”
Struthers knew all about the genesis of Dolly’s big number, an aspect of the role that she clearly relishes. “Nothing in real life can compare to what happens in the Harmonia Gardens number. Gower Champion spent more time on that one scene than he did on anything else in the show. The show didn’t completely work at first. They took it around to other cities, trying different things out before opening on Broadway, but once Hello, Dolly! got there, it assumed the place that it has in theater history today.” And what place is that? “Top five for sure,” said Struthers. “I even think top three, up with South Pacific and West Side Story.” If you would like to see just how Dolly keeps “glowin’, crowin’, and goin’ strong,” there’s still time to get to either of these performances and to enjoy Sally Struthers at the helm of this big beautiful ship.
Theater League brings Hello, Dolly! to the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Tuesday and Wednesday, February 25 and 26, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.