We could all use a little Dolly Levi in our lives, no one should be an old oak leaf and money is like manure. These are just three of the important tidbits I’m taking away from The Matchmaker, an absurdly funny, deeply touching and profoundly witty play that marked the end of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s opening week festivities Saturday night. The Thornton Wilder play has a long history with the festival but has never actually been performed on one of its stages (although a production of Hello Dolly was mounted there in 2005) and one can’t help but wonder if they took so long to attempt it because they wanted to get it just right. I’m happy to report that the production was worth the wait.
Everything about this production is a success, from the gorgeous and elaborate set (designed by Santo Loquasto) to the lighting and sound (Michael Walton and Thomas Ryder Payne) to the brilliant direction by up and comer Christopher Abraham. This is not an easy production to tackle; it’s got a large cast, tricky humour and a lot of material. Done incorrectly it could come off as ‘busy’ and potentially boring, but Abraham weaves all the tales together smoothly and simply, accentuating the strength of the stellar cast who all shine in their respective roles.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, The Matchmaker tells the story of crotchety Horace Vandergelder, a rich man living in Yonkers who has suddenly decided to take a wife. He employs two store clerks who are living sheltered, dull lives and craving a big adventure, and has a young niece who has fallen in love with an artist. Horace, played here by a brilliant and shockingly funny Tom McCamus, takes pleasure in making the lives of his clerks miserable and in trying to keep his daughter from marrying the penniless artist and following silly dreams about love. Enter Dolly Levi – a smart, sassy woman from the city who will (in the course of one crazy day) bring everyone together in funny and unexpected ways, tying all the relationships up in neat little bows by the end of the production.
Dolly is played by Seana McKenna, stepping back into a dress after last year’s performance as Richard in the Festival’s presentation of Richard III. She’s luminous in this role, managing to balance the character’s strength and tenacity with just the right amount of sweet vulnerability. By the time she delivers her final speech to her deceased first husband, her plea for his blessing to re-marry brought more than a tear to my eye.
While the production centers around Dolly, the entire cast is strong and work incredibly well together. As Horace’s two store clerks Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, Mike Shara and Josh Epstein bring youthful exuberance to their roles and get some of the biggest laughs of the night as they go off in search of their grand adventure. Cornelius in particular (who’s goal for the evening includes kissing a woman – something he has yet to do at the age of 33) is a stand-out as he banters with his love interest Irene Molloy (Laura Condlln). Shara and Condlln play incredibly well off each other, tackling difficult physical comedy and demonstrating a natural chemistry that’s hard to ignore. When Shara jumps in and out of Condlin’s wardrobe to ensure he isn’t seen by his boss in one of the early scenes (and then proceeds to crawl across the stage in an effort to remain hidden) my cheeks hurt from laughing so hard.
The Matchmaker wouldn’t be the success that it is without its incredibly talented supporting cast, led by Geraint Wyn Davies as Malachi Stack, who breaks the fourth wall to deliver a speech about vices that was both funny and strangely poignant. Wyn Davies is joined by Cara Ricketts as Horace’s niece Ermengarde, Skye Brandon as Ambrose Kemper (the object of Ermengarde’s affection), Andrea Runge as Minnie Faye and a scene-stealing Nora McLellan as Miss Flora Van Huysen. They’re further accentuated by a host of supporting actors who play everything from over the top waiters, to housekeepers and dinner guests. This is the type of production that relies strongly on its farcical tones and physical comedy, and without the talented supporting players it would fall flat. Whether they’re tripping over misplaced articles of clothing, dropping meals on the floor or burying their heads in ice buckets, the cast makes each moment stand out and every player rises to a level of commitment all too often relegated to those in ‘principle’ roles. The ability to work together, and the strength of the group as a whole, is where The Matchmaker gets its magic.