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When I discovered that Ambler’s Act II Playhouse, a 129-seat theater without an orchestra pit, was producing Hello, Dolly!, I wondered why. The theater has successfully adapted big Broadway musicals from the golden age to its intimate space in the past, so I was curious to discover its approach to this one. Unfortunately, despite the impressive talent involved, this production fails to provide a compelling reason for its existence.
Hello, Dolly! is inherently a broad comedy with larger-than-life characters and scenes designed for big laughs. This poses a challenge in a small theater like Act II’s. While there is certainly joy in being able to witness the actors up close, the exaggerated performances required by the show clash with the very architecture of the venue.
Similarly, the orchestrations in Dolly are vibrant and bold, effectively propelling the musical forward. Instead of opting for a smaller ensemble or a piano accompaniment, Act II decided to utilize pre-recorded orchestral music, known as canned orchestrations. While I acknowledge the practical reasons behind this decision, combined with the significantly reduced cast numbers, it can leave the grand production numbers feeling somewhat underwhelming.
These limitations could have provided an opportunity for inventive directorial choices and finding creative ways to tell the story. Unfortunately, director Stephen Casey sticks closely to the classic staging by Gower Champion, reminiscent of the show’s 2020 national tour. The small ensemble mostly rises to the challenge of this ambitious and precise vision, with Taylor Hilt Mitchell and Dominick Sannelli being particularly impressive. With more suitable direction for the space, this ensemble could have been outstanding.
Small stage, big talent
Fortunately, this production of Dolly features some of the region's finest talents in musical comedy. Jennifer Eisenhower shines as the warm and radiant title character, delivering captivating soliloquies to her late husband that alone make the ticket price worthwhile. Scott Langdon brings joy to the stage as the gruff Horace. Zachary Chiero, Elyse Langley, Renee McFillin, Lee Slobotkin, Jessica Riloff, and Jeremy Kanopa all contribute with excellent comedic timing, superb singing, and accomplished dancing. During a lull in the second act, Eleni Delopoulos has the audience in stitches as Ernestina.
While I was disappointed by the missed potential of a new and more intimate interpretation of Dolly, I still appreciated the pleasures to be found on the Act II stage. As ingénue Irene Malloy says, "the world is full of wonderful things!" Watching this talented ensemble tackle this beloved story is certainly one of them. In the words of two other satisfied audience members leaving the theater, "It's like having the Walnut Street Theatre right here in Ambler!" That kind of word of mouth is clearly spreading. The show’s run is almost completely sold out.
What, When, Where
Hello, Dolly! By Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman, directed by Stephen Casey. $32-$49. Through June 18, 2023, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E Butler Avenue, Ambler. (215) 654-0200 or act2.org.
The theater is wheelchair-accessible.
Masks and proof of vaccination are no longer required at Act II Playhouse.
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