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Review: "Hello, Dolly!"

Woodland Hills High School, April 24 - May 3

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

For overall polish, few high school musicals can match those at Woodland Hills.

Ashley Gaines creates a Dolly of warmth and presence with a commanding performance in the Woodland Hills High School production of "Hello, Dolly!" (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

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Although the school district was created by merger only in the mid-1980s and has produced musicals only since 1988, it draws on the long musical theater heritage of its one of its predecessors, Churchill High School, and has created its own rich tradition under the leadership of Thomas Crone.

This year, Woodland Hills returned to a classic it last staged in 1989, "Hello, Dolly!" Given eight performances over two weekends, it had all the usual Woodland Hills assurance -- colorful sets, slick technical work, elaborate costumes and big production numbers.

Of course, you can no more do "Hello, Dolly!" without an appropriate Dolly than "Hamlet" without the prince, and, in Ashley Gaines, Woodland Hills had a Dolly of warmth and presence, a commanding performer able to turn sunny or brassy, flirtatious or sentimental as needed.

Gaines' command was never more evident than in her segue from the climactic Harmonia Gardens hullabaloo to the courtroom scene. Oblivious to the anxiety with which everyone else on stage waits for her to take matters in hand, Dolly sits, leisurely finishing an elaborate dinner. One plate of turkey, a second, several glasses of wine ... she takes her own delicious time. I've seen actresses from Carol Channing to Lenora Nemetz manage this delicious comedy, and Gaines matched them for comic imperturbability, stretching the bit just as far as it could profitably go.

Mitzi Milovac fits a dark wig over Alexa Lardas's long blond hair before she dones her costume to play the part of Irene Molloy. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

But Dolly notwithstanding, Woodland Hills' "Dolly" was primarily a product of ensemble. As with any good team, its game plan was bigger than its individual players: Splendid production numbers gave many students a chance to shine, but the result was greater than the sum of its parts.

High among those parts was choreography. "Dolly" offers fewer opportunities for stop-the-show dance acrobatics than it does large ensemble numbers of colorful, stage-filling patterns, such as the opening number with its passing Manhattan parade, the big "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" display, lively "Before the Parade Passes By" and celebratory finale. Choreographer J. Dan Miller moved a very large singing ensemble with ease through simple, emphatic choreography. He built satisfying patterns to unfold with the natural variety of students whose individual personalities were encouraged to shine through.

But there is one famous number where acrobatics do count, the "Waiters' Gallop." I don't usually care for it as much as its reputation warrants, but the Woodland Hills crew of 14 tumbling, high-kicking waiters and eight cooks juggled trays, skewers and flaming desserts with abandon. Then Dolly entered looking like a gilt and crimson table setting, towering centerpiece included. It was pure pizazz, milked with joy.

Everyone praises Jerry Herman's score, but Michael Stewart's book (based on Thornton Wilder) has more wit than is usually credited. Horace Vandergelder is "rich, friendless and mean" -- which in Yonkers "is about as far as you can go." My own favorite line is when Irene Molloy allows the inexperienced Cornelius to put his arm around her waist, "but I warn you, a corset is a corset."

Uncommonly for high schools, the big ensemble included a strong male presence -- some 22 men wielding brooms in "It Takes a Woman," for example. The vocal sound, directed by Lorraine Milovac, was full, as was the orchestra, conducted by Crone. The sound had nary a glitch, a rarity among high school musicals, and Robert Steineck's professional lighting included a fine strobe effect on a chase scene.

Cast members wait backstage at Woodland Hills High School to make their entrances on different levels of the set in "Hello, Dolly!" (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

Barbara Oakes' vivid costume design took advantage of the school's extensive storehouse. Special kudos go to the horse played by Danielle Marchitello and Rachel Szymczak.

Except for one rented drop, Robert Vukich's bright, cheery and extensive set was designed, built and painted for this show. Vandergelder's store and apartment and the double-sided show window-interior of Mrs. Molloy's hat shop were as elaborate as the whole sets at some smaller schools.

But the set's perfection was its convertibility. Crone's staging relied heavily on a large runway surrounding the orchestra, allowing the cast to take a very presentational show well out into the jam-packed, 905-seat auditorium. But it also provided time for scene changes: Dolly could lead a procession out on the runway and, by the time it circled back to the stage, the set was ready for the next scene.

Dolly, of course, took to the runway as she did to that turkey, savoring every bit. The commanding Gaines was good in chat (in spite of a softness of diction and gesture), better in action and best in song, especially her soft section of "When the Parade Passes By."

Thomas G. Crone waits outside a room in which the cast is assembled for private time before the show. Crone was waiting to get a little closer to the start of the play to make a pep talk to the cast. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

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As her victim, Dan Snedden showed a fine line in bluster. You could almost feel sympathetic for him, like a rabbit pursued by an eagle. Eventually, of course, Dolly had managed his life so completely he couldn't imagine it without her.

Five of the young lovers were double-cast. Among those I saw, I especially liked Alana Dunn's squeaky Minnie and Ellen Caparosa's sweetly dignified Irene, though Nathan Lott's Cornelius was so constantly atwitter it was hard to acquiesce in his pursuit of Irene. Dianna Henk made a fine comic bit of her bra-lifting, tooth-sucking, gum-snapping, pint-sized Mae West, as did William Hennon with his comic judge.

The Woodland Hills audience responds with enthusiastic and knowing laughter, as you'd expect of fans who start lining up when tickets first go on sale in February. They know what to expect.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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