Beautiful Venue, Stellar Performance in Brandywiner’s HELLO, DOLLY!

by Walter Bender

Sue Hornung stars as Dolly Levi in The Brandywiners’ production of HELLO, DOLLY!, playing at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA through August 4.

I was finally able to see the “opening night” performance of The Brandywiner’s HELLO, DOLLY! on Monday evening.  The show is performed at the Longwood Gardens Open Air Theater, and weather problems delayed the originally scheduled July 26th performance until then. I have to say, it was worth the wait. While this production is not without its challenges, there is much to enjoy.

The title role is performed–owned, really–by Sue Hornung. From the moment she steps through the “crowd” on the stage she commands attention, her stage presence and confident demeanor delightful to watch. She immediately connects with the audience with a comfortable and intimate delivery, making everyone feel that she is speaking just to them. In addition, Alexander Bowditch (Cornelius) and Chris Trombetta (Barnaby) are very funny and work well together. Trombetta, in particular, works his very limber frame well to display his dancing skills throughout the show. Meghan Hindmarch is delightful as Minnie, taking a relatively small role and making the audience look forward to her every appearance. Kate Connell Wright (Irene) has a beautiful voice and shows it off with every note delivered.

There is a large and gifted supporting cast, who give their all with each appearance. Kudos to Music Director Don Smith and Choreographer Jody Anderson for keeping the music and dance interesting. The “dance chorus” does yeoman duty throughout the production, serving as townspeople, waiters, staff, and other nimble characters.

The production is staged in a beautiful venue. If you have not seen the Open Air Theatre at Longwood Gardens, you should. Vegetation is shaped to provide a beautiful backdrop, a long central staircase leads to an upper area, and fountains provide a beautiful pre-show, intermission, and post-show attraction. Stage Director Cal Brackin makes optimum use of the venue, moving the cast in, out, up and down freely during each production number, minimizing the often-awkward ending of scenes when the bottleneck of chorus leaving the stage slows things to a crawl. The orchestra is first rate.

I alluded earlier to problems with the production, and they do need to be addressed. While the director has managed the traffic flow very well, he did not control his actors nearly as well at times, with some of the chorus and even some of the secondary characters “mugging” far too much to the audience. Some of the performers need to understand when they are the focus and when they are the backdrop. This happened too often to be accidental, and the reaction of the audience indicated the pull of focus from the main action at times. In addition, a couple of the major actors in the production were trying to imitate their predecessors, obviously having watched the movie, and were mimicking those characters instead of making them their own. In addition, some of the casting choices made for awkward matches…one couple in particular was visually disturbing, with a perceived age difference interfering with the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

The venue, while beautiful created some issues as well. The cast, while large, was unable to fill the stage adequately during some of the production numbers. Ms. Hornung, as Dolly, had to almost scamper back and forth to address the waiters in the signature number of the show, for example. Perhaps finding a way to shorten the width of the playing space during those moments would have been prudent. And though the sound system did balance vocals against the orchestra in general, it was unable to adequately mix the chorus. I knew there was harmony being sung, but at times was not able to hear it.

Despite any shortcomings, the production was appreciated by those in attendance – the older gentleman sitting next to me was singing along, making comments throughout about how much he was enjoying this show. His opinion was shared by many in the audience, and the enthusiastic applause during curtain call was their review for this cast and crew. Judge for yourself…you have one more weekend to go to this unusual venue to see this often delightful production.

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Book by Michael Stewart
Based on the Play “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Cal Brackin
Assisted by Robert Moore
Musical Direction by Don Smith (Assisted by Jackson Borges)
Choreography by Jody Anderson
July 26, 27, 28 and August 2, 3, 4, 2012 @ 8:30 p.m.
The Brandywiners, Ltd
Longwood Gardens Open Air Theatre
Kennett Square, PA
302-478-3355 or 800-338-6965

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