By BART GREENBERG ♠♣♥♦ If there are two things Richard Skipper knows about, they are how to throw a party and how to entertain an audience on any topic, especially Hello, Dolly!. Monday night, January 16, at The Triad Theatre on West 72nd St., he combined those two abilities to offer up a wonderful evening of music, laughter and sweet memories commemorating the 53rd anniversay of the opening of the delicious musical (soon to return to Broadway with Bette Midler).
As part of his Richard Skipper Celebrates series, the host with the most assembled a cast of performers, each with their own link with the material. Sondra Lee was there from the very beginning, creating the role of Minnie Fay in the original production. The ageless sprite told delightful stories about the chaotic rehearsal period with a constant flow of Barnaby Tuckers (Christopher Walken’s brother) as well as her backstage feud, long mended, with co-star Eileen Brennan.
Next up was Lee Roy Reams, who played the role of Cornelius Hackl in the first major Broadway revival of the show and has since directed several major productions, as well as essaying the title role in Florida. He shared a wonderful story about David Merrick that led to the rediscovery of a lost song from the show [originally written for the male protagonist, Horace Vandergelder: “Penny in My Pocket”) and then offered two of Cornelius’s, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment” (with Lee adding her one spoken line on cue, creating one of the loveliest moments of the evening). Reams was joined from the audience by the elegant Beth Fowler to complete the song.
Fowler had played the role of Irene Molloy on two summer tours– with Molly Picon (and briefly Julie Wilson). She reminisced about the veteran Yiddish theater star’s deep connection to Dolly’s speeches to her beloved Ephraim, as Pico was missing her own adored husband who was quite ill and not touring with her for the first time. Fowler then offered a sensitive rendition of “Ribbons Down My Back”.
Monday was also the 109th birthday of the final Dolly during the original run, the iconic Ethel Merman. To include her in this celebration, Skipper introduce her foremost interpreter, Rita McKenzie, who offered up one of the two songs added to the show, specifically written for Merman [when she’d been its hoped-for originator], with the clarion vitality that one associates with that star.
One happy surprise was the presence in the audience of the Broadway veteran Harvey Evans, whose involvement with the show ranged from playing Barnaby to more recently embodying the irascible Horace. The never irascible Evans spoke especially warmly of one of his Dollys, Eve Arden, whom he recalled as a funny lady and a great one when serious troubles hit some of the cast members.
The final celebrant of the evening was the irreplaceable Marilyn Maye. At this point what can be said about this magical lady who offered up two of Dolly’s most ebullient moments with “Before the Parade Passes By” and “So Long, Dearie” delivered with the joy and élan to be expected from this divine diva.
Throughout the evening, essential support was offered up by the musical trio of musical director Tedd Firth, Jeff Carney and Rex Benincasa as well as the excellent technical support from the Triad team.
What held the delicious evening together, as he does in each of this series of celebration, is producer/host Richard Skipper, charming, interviewing, singing, joking and listening to his guests and his audience. Decked out in “David Merrick red”, he was the magnetic center of the event. Next month, on February 12th, at 1 p.m., Skipper will shift the series to the Laurie Beechman Theatre for a celebration of himself and events associated with February 12th with a birthday brunch. The series is produced by Russ Woolley and Wright Bros. Real Estate, Nyack, NY.