Thursday 31 January 2019

The Matchmaker is Hello, Dolly's pre-music script 
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

New York City erupted from a mere 1.2 million souls in 1880 up to 3.4 million by 1900. That salient fact underlies Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker. A time Mark Twain referred to as "the gilded age". Hustlers. Schemers. Connivers. They all abound. Enter the enterprising and clever widow Dolly Gallagher Levi, self-appointed marriage arranger from Yonkers, Westchester County -- NYC's so-called "6th borough". 

Dolly meets up with the gentrifying widower Horace Vandergelder (his name parses literally as "a timekeeper who's awash in wealth"). Horace is worth a hefty stash, no question, but he's looking for a last fling at love in all the wrong places. So he contracts with Dolly to find him a dolly of his own. She thinks her very name answers that question right smartly. But she will need all the myriad bluffs and feints of a card shark to get her man who has eyes set on another catch. Fact is his heart is about as cheap as his wallet in this quest.

Add in a couple of scheming shop stewards from Heer Vandergelder's department store who are young and horny and steal away from work for a dirty week-end adventure. And some tarts who mistake them for 
nouveau riche young men on the make. And then the boss catches them after a madcap Keystone Cops caper. Oh. Not to leave out some cross-dressing. All-in-all no end of screens and masques and mistaken identities. 

This is the stuff of  Matchmaker. Pure goofy farce that is a rich and resonant cacophony of classic theatre riffs. Forms re-imagined by Wilder in 1954 to reflect the foibles of a wild and crazy late-19th century moment when the USA was robust-&-daring-&-hopeful. Pre-Norman Rockwell's comfy couch sentimental version, no question. And certainly not the out-of-sync Brave New World we find ourselves stuck in today. A "gilded age" quite like no other.

Wannabe opera diva Miss Flora Van Huysen (Nora McLellan) exuberates in front of all the mismatched characters who have recombobulated in The Matchmaker now on show at The Stanley. Somehow all the right folks end up in the right arms at the end of this timepiece drama about moneylender and class.
Photo credit David Cooper
Some of the pizazz and energy of USA's late 19th century zeitgeist caught folks' imaginations when Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart teamed up to make merry music of The Matchmaker in their 1964 hit Hello, Dolly (Louis Armstrong's gravelly version of its theme song is 100% earworm).

So can the resurrected stage script "low-brow farce" that birthed Dolly still do the magic tricks Thornton Wilder wanted from it in 2019?  Wilder wanted to transcend the art form, make the show more carnival than traditional comic slapstick. Invite the audience into the characters' hearts and minds partly through their soliloquies -- that common Shakespearean tactic that always pierces the fourth wall between stage and audience.

No critic I've read from performances over the years nails an obvious leitmotif of Wilder that comes through those soliloquies. Money. Power. Social and economic disequilibrium that are always at the heart of "free enterprise", whether of the North American variety or Chinese or South Asian or Middle Eastern.

In The Matchmaker those themes emit most often from the dipsomaniac Irish drifter Malachi Stack (Scott Bellis) who is a go-fer for Vandergelder : "Being employed is like being in love -- you know that someone's thinking about you all the time!" -and- "He's no friend, just an employer that I'm trying out for a few days." Laugh-lines that but thinly masque some serious social commentary.

Common knowledge that the first act in many mysteries and spoofs is often filled with plot and character exposition that can be a bit laborious. E'en so with Mr. Wilder's script. But so it must be to position all the moving parts so the Rube Goldberg contraption that results can spin and buzz and cavort with riotous vaudeville precision come Act 2.

Directed by ACT's resident Artistic Director Ashlie Corcoran, the show evinces her pedigree in large-scale tales (14 actors in this) as well as opera with its requisite hyperventilations. Some of her blocking sequences and choreography and stage business gesticulations for the cast are simply superb, the Horace / Malachi spinnerama to kick off Act 2 a prime example. And the cast's pantomime'd train and carriage meanders across the stage during scene changes were utterly clever laugh moments.

This gang is richly appointed, to a person, large parts and bit parts all. Funny to think of a farce having actual "clown" parts for "comic relief", but both Mr. Bellis's eye-popping impishness and Nora McLellan's operatic histrionics as Aunt Flora were near show-stealers.

"She chased him so long he finally caught her!" is how The Matchmaker comes to a close with Nicola Lipman as Dolly and Ric Read as Horace Vandergelder, who in the process finds himself gelded as both patriarch and oligarch.  Photo credit David Cooper
Ric Read gives Horace a nifty contemporary turn to Ebenezer Scrooge, while his chief clerk Cornelius Hackl by Tyrone Savage sustains a risible naive energy the night through. As the pawky, crafty manipulator Dolly, Nicola Lipman for her part was unfaltering and steadfast. She reminded this viewer of a Hollywood trinity always enjoyed over the years : a bit of Carole Burnett, Audrey Meadows and Jean Stapleton all-in-one.

Possibly the "first star of the game" award, however, has to be handed out to set and costume designer Drew Facey. Stylized baroque wrought iron archways softened by floral bursts floor-to-ceiling -- perhaps the most ambitious and artful schematic scene yet seen from him whose Jessie Award prominence year after year testifies to what a unique and special talent Vancouver is proud to claim here.

Folks wanting a flavour of farce traditions as filtered through the 1950's eye of the gentle, ironic social balladeer Thornton Wilder will be inclined to stand and clap as most did on opening night. And just as Billy Bard's Taming of the Shrew remains ever-popular fare despite its hopeless antiquarian attitudes around women and their domestic "role", same with The Matchmaker. A compleat performance overall, this is a show whose second act could be put on a YouTube loop set on Repeat for days on end. 

Particulars :  Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.  On until February 24, 2019.  Run-time 130 minutes plus intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.  

Production team :  Ashlie Corcoran, Director.  Mishelle Cuttler, Composer and Sound Designer. Drew Facey, Set & Costume Designer.  John Webber, Lighting Designer.  Shelley Stewart Hunt, Choreographer.  Pamela Jakobs, Stage Manager.  Genevieve Fleming, Assistant Director. Angela Beaulieu, Assistant Stage Manager.  Adam Henderson, Dialect Coach.  Sara Vickruck, Assistant Sound Designer.  Karen Ydenberg, Production Dramaturg.

Performers :  Georgia Beaty (Minnie Fay).  Scott Bellis (Malachi Stack).  Daniel Doheny (Barnaby Tucker). Julie Leung (Ermengarde).  Nicola Lipman (Mrs. Dolly Levi).  Nora McLellan (Miss Flora Van Huysen).  Nadeem Phillip (Ambrose Kemper).  Tom Pickett (Joe Scanlon / Rudolph).  Ric Reid (Horace Vandergelder).  Jason Sakaki (August).  Tyrone Savage (Cornelius Hackl).  Munish Sharma (Cabman).  Deborah Williams (Cook / Gertrude). Naomi Wright (Mrs. Irene Molloy).  


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