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Heartwarming ‘Dolly’ says ‘hi’

It took one heck of a long time for Marriott’s Dolly to say howdy. And even when she did on Thursday night’s opening performance, her hydraulics were not functioning at full capacity.

But in the delightful person of Heidi Kettenring, a bona fide Chicago trouper and star, Dolly Levi was most welcome nonetheless.

The issues with this fall production at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, directed and choreographed by Denis Jones, began with the loss of several early performances due to COVID-19 issues and protocols. And when the show finally got its full principal cast back in place for Thursday night, a technical snafu meant that the planned raised levels of Harmonia Gardens remain stubbornly Earthbound, surely a challenge for the dancers.

In a program insert, the theater generously offered to reschedule any patron who preferred to see the full monty, but given the crush of weekend shows, I elected to stay. I’ve seen things go up and down for many years at the Marriott and I can use my imagination. Plus, “Hello, Dolly!,” the 1964 Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart musical based on Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker,” is a human story.

That, along with some exceptionally witty and nuanced choreography from Jones, is the strength of this production, a much simpler affair than the epic recent Broadway revival starring Bette Midler that had more scenery than Dolly has business cards. Kettenring, a generous performer, does not approach the role as just desserts for a diva of the musical stage, which is how the part often is seen, but imagines a character whose sociability clearly is something of a cover for a widow’s loneliness. She certainly doesn’t stint when it comes to the big numbers we’ve all come to hear (“Before the Parade Passes by,”  “Hello, Dolly!”) but the work always is underpinned with a charming humanity and humility. And you get the sense that Kettenring’s Dolly genuinely loves young people. And over the many times I’ve seen this show, that rarely has been the case.

Kettenring has some fine talent to work with; the show has all kinds of familiar local faces in the cast including the veteran performers George Keating and Richard Strimer stripping away the years in fine fettle by dancing up a storm in the ensemble. And the love quartet in the story — Rebecca Hurd is Irene Molloy, Alex Goodrich is Cornelius Hackl, Spencer Davis Milford is Barnaby Tucker and Amanda Walker is an especially present Minnie Fay — all are a genuine pleasure to hear sing and be around. Goodrich takes a delicate tack with one of Herman’s most lovable songs, “It Only Takes a Moment” and it ends up being a remarkably sweet and charming experience.

Will this production change your life? Perhaps not, but it should sustain it, nonetheless. It’s a bit of a creaky book, of course, but then also a classic.

Kettenring gets to work with her real-life husband, David C. Girolmo, as Horace Vandergelder. Once his gruff guy finally sees Dolly’s charms, Girolmo is able to go a genuinely truthful place in expressing how much a person needs a partner like this woman and Kettenring works in an especially cute extra rub of Girolmo’s proffered bald head. Live theater, right there.