Once in a great while, a stage production makes a fantastic impression and the daunting work behind it seems almost effortless. Goodman Theatre’s “The Matchmaker” is charming, delightful and homespun, but for a comedy penned in the 1950’s, this particular telling has a remarkable 2016-era social consciousness. This “Matchmaker” features a cast that is diverse in age, gender, ethnicity and ability, and takes a certain delight in creating an ensemble that is unique and unlikely.
It’s surprising how often an established theater will default to works by notable white males, and feature homogenous performers; google controversial all-white seasons from the Guthrie Theatre, Manhattan Theater Club, or Marriot Theatre’s “Evita” if you want to feel some ire. And, while author Thornton Wilder is a notable white male, director Henry Wishcamper picks up on a lack of concern in Wilder’s collected plays that any play should strive to be realistic. Because it doesn’t have to be viewed any one way, it can belong to anyone.
You’ll recognize “The Matchmaker” as the source material for the musical, “Hello, Dolly”; wealthy and cranky Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder (Allen Gilmore), has decided to take a second wife, and he consults Dolly Gallagher Levi (Kristine Nielsen) to arrange a match.
Dolly decides very quickly that she’d rather have run of Horace’s estate and fortune herself, and schemes an elaborate New York society dinner to show him off to non-existent widows, woo him, and trick a marriage proposal out of him. To add to the chaos, Dolly’s also promised to help Horace’s niece Ermengarde (Theo Allyn) who has her heart set on marrying artist Ambrose Kemper (Ronobir Lahiri), despite her uncle’s objections. Oh, and Horace’s shop clerks, Cornelius Hackl (Postell Pringle) and Barnaby Tucker (Behzad Dabu) may have also stumbled into the fray and promised a bewitching widowed milliner Mrs. Molloy (Elizabeth Ledo) and her apprentice Minnie Fay (Sydney Germaine) a night of extravagance they can’t possibly deliver. Through some divine slight-of-hand, Dolly wrangles them until they see their problems as she sees them: little delights.
The ensemble is nothing short of incredible. They finesse themselves into larger-than-life ridiculousness sometimes with little more than throwing on a gaudy purple cape or by stealing a jar of pickles. Allan Gilmore storms in and goes toe-to-toe with everyone he meets as Vandergelder; his bluster is delightful to watch. Likewise, Kristine Nielsen is so unrelentingly winning as Dolly, I found myself wracked with want of a fairy godmother to pluck me from normalcy and place me in an adventure. The audience wandered in and had our hearts unceremoniously stolen.
Another ingenious turn comes from Anita Hollander, who plays a multitude of roles (an elderly Gertrude, a pianist, Flora Van Huysen’s cook); Ms. Hollander, an amputee, is easily one of the most mobile entities next to Behzad Dabu’s table-hopping young Barnaby. This and more makes “The Matchmaker” the ultimate arena to play with audience expectation. Proceeding with abandon (and with author’s blessing), director Henry Wishcamper delivers what we’ve all been waiting for: actors of color in substantial roles, not to mention representation for non-cisgender and differently abled performers. We’re more than ready for this adventure.
“The Matchmaker” is a spirited farce appropriate for ages 12 and up, and tickets are available through April 10th.
The Show: The Matchmaker
Venue: Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn)
You can find Sean Margaret on Twitter: @SMargaretWagner