This is Timothy Sheader's second year as artistic director of London’s loveliest open air theatre - a place whose particular kind of magic is part theatrical and part pastoral
. During matinees, birds land on set and butterflies alight on actors. And as the twilight draws down for the evening performances, moths wheel and dart through beams of stage lighting. Whatever the show, the Open Air is a lovely place to be - as long as the rain stays away.
But in part that is the problem with this venue. There were times during Ian Talbot's long, honourable reign as artistic director when productions relied too heavily on the glorious setting. This, so far, has never been the case with Timothy Sheader’s regime which started with a highly choreographed Romeo and Juliet that had echoes of West Side Story. It got mixed reviews but the production had an undeniable vigour that was rarely seen at the Open Air. And whether or not the notion of dancing Capulets and Montagues are your cup of tea, there was a snap to the choreography and an all round raising of the bar that foretold of better things to come.
It has come in the form of Hello, Dolly! the 1964 Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) classic.. The Broadway version starring Carol Channing went up against Barbara Streisand’s Funny Girl and scooped 10 Tonys. But it was Babs who bagged the role of Dolly Levi in the Gene Kelly-directed film version and, as is the way with celluloid, it is the film version that remains in the public consciousness – Dolly’s swagger, that title-song duet with Louis Armstrong and those red jacketed dancing waiters.
And it is this collective memory which Samantha Spiro's Dolly has had to contend with. It’s not the first time. Last year Spiro laid the ghost of Streisand past performances with a well received Funny Girl at Chichester. Her spirited Dolly combines sass and comic timing, often deployed as knowing glances fired at the audience as she attempts to inveigle her way into the hidden affections of Allan Corduner's stone-hearted Vandergelder, the Yonkers "half-millionaire."
As the misanthropic misogynist – “It takes a woman all powdered in pink, to joyously clean out the sink” - Corduner doesn’t have to sing particularly tunefully, and doesn’t. Spiro, however, does. Dolly, after all, was a role originally meant for Ethel Merman and on this opening night Spiro’s voice was on more than one occasion reaching for notes that it didn’t quite grasp. But Spiro is a class act. She won her Olivier in Sondheim’s much more melodically complex Merrily We Roll Along and during the run in Dolly she and the voice will almost certainly settle. And anyway, by the time we arrive at the iconic title number, Sheader’s production has already delivered several moments of that ecstasy which musical audiences always yearn for but only sometimes receive.
The first arrives with the show’s best number, Put On Your Sunday Clothes which climaxes with the 25-strong cast in multicoloured finery coalescing into a choo choo train with twirling parasols for wheels and a smoking top hat at the front for the train's chimney stack. The number, like all the set pieces, is drilled to near perfection by choreographer Stephen Mear. From here on, we know we are in good hands and while we wait for the next showstopper there are fine individual turns from the supporting cast to keep the show flying– among them Josefina Gabriele's flirtatious hat-hating milliner Irene and Daniel Crossley's big-hearted Cornelius Hackl, the show’s other unlikely romantic pairing .Michael Stewart's witty book suspends incredulity by sensibly sticking to the trivial end of the emotional spectrum. And let us not forget – as if we ever could - Annalisa Rossi's big-breasted bawdy broad Ernestina, who Dolly has deliberatelymismatched with Vandegergelder and who lets rip with a fierce tap routine while chomping on a cigar.
But the evening ultimately belongs to Sheader. What could so easily have been the directors first conspicuous crash turns out to be his debut Open Air triumph. And from here on in, this venue's musical will be one of the most keenly awaited productions of the summer season.