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Goodbye, Dolly!

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Cranking up their 38th season, CPCC Summer Theatre isn't wanting for musical talent onstage as they present Hello, Dolly! But holy cabooses, those talented folk must have been feeling mighty beleaguered at Halton Theater after opening night. When Deborah Rhodes starred as Dolly Levi in 2000 at Central Piedmont, taking CL's Best Musical Actress award, there was glitter around her and infectious energy from end to end of panoramic Pease Auditorium. The road gets rougher this time for Rhodes.

Set designer Biff Edge has achieved the impossible, making the streets of Manhattan look less colorful than Vandergelder's Feed Store in Yonkers, and there was a conspicuous mechanical problem when we arrived at the posh Harmonia Gardens. Nor was the capricious Halton sound system on its best behavior — which is never really satisfactory. If actors had the temerity to contact one another, it was at the hazard of unleashing a massive thump into the hall, and if they had the audacity to sing out in full voice, all kinds of clipping and havoc might occur.

When the scenic and sonic magic disappears, the weaknesses of Dolly are mercilessly exposed. Especially in Act 1, with forgettable songs like "I Put My Hand In," "It Takes a Woman," and "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," spectacle is sorely needed, for Michael Stewart's book is rather moribund in its adaptation of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker. It wouldn't be so bad if we only had to contend with Horace Vandergelder's clerk Barnaby repeatedly exclaiming with his cabooses, but Horace's daughter Ermegarde does nothing other than squealing and weeping, making us wonder why she's in the story at all.

Evidently, director Tom Hollis is charmed by such annoyances, for when we reach Mrs. Irene Molloy's Hat Store in New York City, we get more squealing — at a higher pitch — from Irene's hat clerk, Minnie, the woman destined for Barnaby. After starring in Violet and Aladdin over the past year, Cassandra Howley Wood also deserved better as Minnie; and Ashton Clay Guthrie, sufficiently saddled with those cabooses as Barnaby, is obliged to dance his newfound love around like a ragdoll. Even when the score finally perks up with the first act finale, "Before the Parade Passes By," the spectacle mustered up by Hollis & Co. is jaw-droppingly feeble.

Budgetary woes can be blamed for some of the scenic blandness — and a sound system that literally cries out to be euthanized — but somehow costume designer Jamey Varnadore comes up with the necessary magic to transform Dolly from the meddlesome matchmaker of Act 1 to the demimonde diamond of Act 2. Here the music of the title song and the comical "So Long, Dearie" comes to Rhodes' aid, and we finally remember how she can sparkle. After the doldrums of Act 1, I was actually surprised by how powerfully Horace's surrender to Dolly touched me. For Charles LaBorde, though he still can't sing, calculates wisely as Horace, making his explosions of exasperation during all the ordeals of Dolly's conniving courtship recognizably those of a suffering husband.

As the denouement approaches, we're softened up by the best of the Dolly ballads, "It Only Takes a Moment," which bonds Horace's chief clerk Cornelius Hackl with Irene (whom Horace has long since discarded). The idea that "it only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long" isn't absolute twaddle when Andy Faulkenberry and Sarah Henkel sing it with such charming ardor.

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