Lord knows David Armstong, the 5th Avenue’s producing director, honestly tries. The guy can, at this point, absolutely program a smart season: The next one opens this summer with yet another world premiere—the very promising Catch Me If You Can, created by the Hairspray team with award-winning playwright Terrence McNally and starring fellow Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels)—cushioned against sure-fire cash cows like Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and Intiman artistic director Bartlett Sher’s remarkably clear-eyed revival staging of South Pacific (trust me, it’s gorgeous). And we’ve still got an exquisite Sunday in the Park with George to look forward to next month.
But, man, some substantial part of my stomach lining gave way when I opened the program for Hello, Dolly! and saw the words “directed and choreographed by David Armstrong.” (I’ve got to start reading press releases more carefully.) I’ve seen most of Mr. Armstrong’s local output at this point. I do not know who told Mr. Armstrong he was a choreographer but as sure as I sit here—without even a single barre class to my credit, mind you—I’m positive that person was not being Mr. Armstrong’s true friend.
The Dolly numbers consist either of hoppity-skippity little prances (to remind us we’re watching something irresistibly quaint) or, worse, the exaggerated waving of arms and legs you might do if you’d been lost for days on a desert road and suddenly spotted an Aquafina truck headed your way (“Here! See me!! I’m so happy to see you!!! And see my smiling family over there in the car?! We’re so thirsty! Please!!”). If his stumbly, amateur take on the “Waiter’s Gallop”—a famous dance interlude introducing the brisk but efficient service at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant—were a horse, you can be assured it would not be allowed to gallop much longer.
Yet any production of Hello, Dolly! mainly requires a lead who can earn the show its exclamation point. And Jenifer Lewis, to my profound surprise, could not find it in herself on opening night. Oh, she’ll probably get there after a few more performances—as soon as she came cascading down the Harmonia Gardens staircase during the most famous serenade in musical history (in a godawful dress, unfortunately) she zinged through the last quarter of the night, loose and warm and growly and riffing with her lines the way everybody thought she’d do from the very beginning.
Unfortunately, she spent the first act flubbing her dialogue or HITting EV’ry OTHer syllable in an uncomfortable imitation of a grande dame, faux British diction and all. She also seemed unsure about where or how to place her singing voice—another surprise, but one that plagued most of the cast—as if she hadn’t yet decided whether it was best to boom out a note or just get the point across with personality.
I heartily suggest the latter. If this Hello, Dolly! is ever going to work it needs a woman who can push whatever doesn’t work right out of her way.