Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi is once again “arranging things,” this time at Hollywood’s Actors Co-op, but don’t expect any singing waiters to be belting out a Jerry Herman show tune this time round. It’s the comedy that started Dolly on the path to Broadway legendhood, aka Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, that the Co-op is reviving—and a tiptop revival it is.

Photo2_sm Actually, it turns out that matchmaking is only one of many talents that have made widowed Dolly (Lori Berg) so sought after in late 1880s Yonkers (reducing varicose veins and giving guitar and mandolin lessons being two others). It is, however, the talent that has brought her the greatest renown.

No wonder then that gruff and grumpy local merchant Horace Vandergelder (Dimitri Christy) has hired Dolly to match him up with a prospective wife, preferably milliner Irene Molloy (Ellis Greer), the beautiful young New York City widow he has his sights set on.

Unbeknownst to Horace, however, it’s Dolly herself who aims to become the second Mrs. Horace Vandergelder, if only to spread his wealth around “like manure,” thereby “encouraging young things to grow.” It’s to this end that she sings to him the praises of a supposedly eligible yet utterly imaginary bachelorette named Ernestina Simple, the better to buy herself time to win the wealthy old codger’s heart, a feat we have no doubt she’ll manage to accomplish, and not simply because we’ve seen Hello, Dolly! umpteen times.

Photo7_sm Meanwhile, Horace’s two clerks, thirty-three year old Cornelius Hackl (Jeff Fazakerley) and seventeen-year-old Barnaby Tucker (Joseph Barone), have engineered an “accidental” tomato can explosion inside Vandergelder’s Hay, Feed, and Hardware Emporium as an excuse to close shop for the day and head off to The Big Apple for their own New York City adventure. As a wide-eyed Barnaby puts it, “We’re going to have a good meal, and we’re going to be in danger, and we’re going to get almost arrested, and we’re going to spend all our money. And we’re not coming back to Yonkers until we’ve kissed a girl.”

Completing the cast of principal players are Horace’s crocodile tear-prone niece Ermengarde (Rory Patterson) and her love-struck suitor Ambrose Kemper (Coy Benning Wentworth); Minnie Fay (Katie Buderwitz), Irene’s naïve assistant (i.e. Barnaby to her Cornelius); Horace’s just-hired apprentice Malachi Stack (Brian Habicht), a man with a checkered past and a long list of vices he prefers indulging in one at a time; and Mrs. Flora Van Huysen (Deobrah Marlowe), the New York spinster as bound to see Ermengarde and Ambrose wed as Horace is to keep them apart.

Not surprisingly, The Matchmaker delves more deeply into Wilder’s characters than Michael Stewart could in his book for Hello, Dolly! We get to know supporting players like Ermengarde and Ambrose a bit better, and might find ourselves wishing that the deliciously drawn Miss Flora Van Huysen could have made it into the Broadway musical smash. On the other hand, regardless of who plays him, I’ve never been much of a fan of Malachi Stack, whose post-intermission monolog goes on a good deal longer than I’d care for.

Photo4_sm Theatergoers familiar with Wilder’s surreal Our Town and The Skin Of Our Teeth will enjoy seeing the Pulitzer Prize winner in rather more straightforward mode. There’s considerable pleasure in seeing how Wilder adheres to the conventions of farce (improbable situations, mistaken identity, characters in disguise, e.g. Barnaby in drag) while at the same time making the genre very much his own. It’s quite Thornton Wilder-esque to have Vandergelder promote Cornelius … to a position he already holds (that of chief clerk), or to have Irene declare quite straight-facedly that people assume she’s “a wicked woman” because (horror of horrors) she sells hats, or to have his leading lady plant the idea of marrying her into Vandergelder’s head by declaring, “Why, I’d marry Cornelius Hackl before I’d marry you,” even though the thought of proposing has never crossed his mind.

Photo5_sm Director Heather Chesley stages The Matchmaker with a deft hand, making sure that the entire cast is on the same stylistic page and keeping things moving briskly despite an overlong running time for a comedy as light-hearted as The Matchmaker.

Actors Co-op fans will hardly be surprised by the number of sensational performances given by its cast of Co-op members and guest artists. Berg, memorable as Amanda Wingfield a few years back, makes for so positively divine a Dolly that it’s no wonder everyone falls under her spell. New Co-op members Fazakerley and Barone are in delightfully unworldly sync as Cornelius and Barnaby. Christy may be a bit stiff as Horace, but then again he’s playing rather a stiff-shirted character. It’s a pleasure to welcome back longtime Co-op member Habicht, quite droll as Malachi Stack despite my mixed feelings about Stack himself. Marlowe once again proves her mastery at vanishing into characters as diverse as Horace’s housekeeper, described by the playwright as “eighty; deaf; half blind; and very pleased with herself,’’ and born-romantic spinster Flora Van Huysen.

Photo8_sm Co-op favorite Patterson gets every one of Ermengarde’s many laughs, often simply by speaking in a voice and crying wah-wah tears that would do an I Love Lucy episode proud. L.A. newcomer Wentworth couldn’t be a more appealing Ambrose to Patterson’s Ermengarde, making their joint appearances a particular treat. Buderwitz’s cute-as-a-button Minnie Fay and Michael Dye’s amusingly Teutonic Rudolph are winners too, as are Matthew Gilmore’s Cabman, Robert Henry’s Joe Scanlon (Horace’s hyper-honest barber), and Lauren Thompson’s Cook. Finally, graduating USC senior Ellis Greer makes a stellar Co-op debut as Irene, a performance so richly-layered and watchable that even when the spotlight is on someone else, Greer remains completely, compellingly in character.

Like many a Co-op production before it, The Matchmaker looks fabulous. Scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s striking wood-and-brick set serves as a backdrop for four distinct locales. (Kudos to director Chesley for the imaginatively pantomimed mini-skits during scene changes.) Recent L.A. Weekly Award winner Vicki Conrad has once again confectioned one gorgeous period outfit after another, with special snaps for Dolly’s trademark red gown. Lisa D. Katz’s expert lighting, Fritz Davis’s accomplished sound design, Nicholas Acciani’s detailed properties design, and Krys Fehervari’s hair and wig design are winners too. (I loved Dolly’s, Gertrude’s, and Flora’s improbably extravagant coifs in particular.) And though The Matchmaker isn’t a musical, choreographer Julie Hall gets its various couples dancing quite gracefully indeed.

The Matchmaker is produced by David Scales. Lauren Goyer is stage manager and Faryl Saar assistant stage manager.

In a season that has included a brilliantly reconceived The World Goes Round and superbly acted revivals of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, The Matchmaker concludes Actors Co-op’s “Season Of Music, Mystery, and Miracles” on a thoroughly entertaining note. With or without an Original Cast Recording’s worth of songs, this is one Dolly you’ll be delighted to say “Hello!” to.

Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 12, 2013
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly

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