All I need is a little bit of ACTING!

I know that a great multitude of people will be thrilled with CenterStage Clovis’ “Hello, Dolly!”. Except me.  So, this is hardly a review.  It is really me trying to explain to myself the whys and wherefores of the thing.

Jon Lovitz iS The Master Thespian

*******

I’ve struggled a great deal with how to frame my judgments of CenterStage Clovis Community Theater’s “Hello, Dolly!”.  As a director and producer I can honestly say that there are many charming and successful elements to the show.

But as an actor and ensemble leader who finds the craft and technique of acting to be absolutely integral in all styles of performance, I was less than whelmed.  In this case, it may all just be a matter of taste.

I would put CenterStage’s “Hello, Dolly!” in the category of fine event theater for a town that so rarely produces its own community theater (one or two community shows a year get produced in Clovis outside of the high school productions—correct me if I’m wrong on that).  And I do think a lot of people will enjoy it on the level of spectacle.  Here’s what I enjoyed:

The scenic work and moveable set pieces were lovely and smoothly executed.  The staging has a real light touch, and some funny, quirky high-energy humor come from a few actors’ bits within the staging.  It moves quickly, the transitions are fluid and I never felt like I was sitting around waiting for something to happen.  Yipee!  Always a major asset!

The costumes—especially those for the principle women- are gorgeous. The ensemble costumes are light, breezy, and generally period appropriate. A few finishing touches here and there (tights on all of the women, a few more light petticoats for the ensemble dancers, for instance) would give the design a more polished look, but considering they’re dressing 50 cast members multiple times, costumer Patti Karsevar did an excellent job.

Vocally, the ensemble chorus and its leading ladies are strong, energetic and very accomplished, a testament to Judith Dickison’s vocal coaching.  The choreography is equally energetic, varied, and director/choreographer Greg Grannis has put together some real show-stopping numbers—especially in the second act (the Waiter’s Gallop is a standout number. With verve and urgency it hit just right.)

So, in terms of production value and cohesiveness, CenterStage has achieved some of the highest marks for community theater I’ve seen anywhere. As someone who produces on a shoestring, I wish I could pull off this kind of spectacle.

In performance—thorough execution —however, is where I want them to expect more from themselves.

There are certainly some individually charming performances in this production.  It must be said that Clytee Ramsay is lustrous, charming and so effortlessly comfortable in the role of Dolly Levi, you cannot help but sit up and give her your attention.  Her line delivery is natural, funny, and completely unself-conscious.  There are perhaps a few moments where her gestures and choreography are repetitive and generic, but those are minor issues.  Her familiarity with Dolly Levi gives her performance a nostalgic feeling, a great understanding of a singular person.  We follow Dolly as she opens up to us and enjoy the tale she tells.

Also in the charming performance category are Evan Wade as Cornelius Hackl and Nick Gardner as Barnaby Tucker (Gardner is the standout of the ensemble, in fact). These two work as a unit, playing off of one another, landing their offbeat and earnest jokes, making connectins with their fellow actors and— better than anyone on the stage— keeping it urgent. This Barnaby and Cornelius duo seem to truly understand what is at stake for their characters— the recklessness of escape, the exhilaration of a life beginning to be lived, the exquisite torture of embarrassment, and the fear of getting caught.  It’s all there in their acting, imbuing each bit, each joke, each movement. Even if their voices don’t always carry their songs comfortably, their acting within the song makes you root for them.

This production features some amazing vocals.  If the notes of the voice could be translated into moments of the acting, the characters would shine. Instead, we get beautiful songs with no real action behind them.

Perhaps Nielsen suffers from this problem. A spectacular voice, Nielsen seems to rely on it for almost her entire performance. During the acting scenes, she seems a bit rote and her jokes don’t land— the timing seemed awkward at moments.  It often seemed as though she were marking her time for the next song to come up so that she could do the really important work of singing.  So when she’s acting, it doesn’t have a purpose.

But it does. Irene Malloy is Cornelius Hackle’s partner for a  reason.  In the hat shop, Irene lists all the reasons she’s looking for a man, looking for adventure.  She truly dislikes her life right now.  She can’t go anywhere. Can’t have any fun. People talk about her behind her back. But mostly, she misses being in love— or at least the adventure of finding love.  These are some big, rich things to act out and that scene should feed into the longing and sexy “Ribbons Down My Back” so flawlessly. But when Nielsen sings, there’s very little acting happening. She doesn’t enact how urgent the need is for love, how she’s pinning all of her hopes on fluttering ribbons to catch just the right man’s eye, or she could DIE a little bit inside.  She simply performs, she doesn’t enact.

And that is the role played by the flatness of this production. So much of it seems FORMED, as in perFORMED, but not active, as in enACTING. Acting.  Acting, acting, acting.  In watching musical theater, I always wonder why so few people bother to learn how to ACT.  Are they too busy learning to sing and dance?  Do they think the acting is the EASY part?  Do they think that anyone can do it, that it just comes?  No, the acting, the embodying. .. that’s the HARD part. That’s the part that elevates a performance to a living thing.

As a traditional musical, “Hello, Dolly!” can fall into the trap of assuming that this sort of interpretation is unnecessary.  But it is always necessary to show people the honest and specific actions of human beings who might once have lived, or who might live among us now.

And that goes for everyone in the cast. Musicals like this are structured with a lot of ensemble work and dance numbers that perhaps don’t further the story, but are meant to further the feeling—the energy—of the play as it builds toward its climax (and to give Dolly Levi a chance to change costumes!).  And while the dance breaks have lovely choreography and dancers who can do the steps, they don’t infuse the movement with the truth of the feeling in that moment.  It is as though they don’t really understand that the dance is there to help tell the story, its feelings, its truth, its journey, and is not just as a bit of quasi-vaudevillian spectacle. It is the same with acting through the choral numbers and acting through the solos.

And so there it is, after 1300 words—that is why everyone else will  enjoy CenterStage Clovis’ “Hello, Dolly!” but for me it is only, ‘meh’.  The spectacle is terrific and a few performances rise to the top.  But I believe that Clovis (and Fresno and Visalia and Bakersfield) can ask more of its performers than just lovely voices and pretty costumes.  I think they can teach their community more than just “do it this way” and “say it that way”.  I think that if they could inspire their performers to add the alive, urgent techniques of acting to their repertoire, their shows would be ‘not to be missed.’

But for me, “Hello, Dolly!” could stand to be missed.

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