Mike Shara, Laura Condlln, Seana McKenna, and Tom McCamus (Andrew Eccles photo)
Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Chris Abraham
Runs until October 27
Review by Geoff Dale
Why would a host of borrowed literary characters, dozens of time-honoured theatrical conventions and enough scenes of broad slapstick to make the likes of Abbott and Costello blush with envy have a Stratford Shakespeare Festival audience figuratively rolling in the aisles with laughter?
Check out The Matchmaker. Discover what all the roars of approval on opening night were all about and why an old chestnut that spawned one of the most popular Broadway musicals of all times 49 years ago is still a classic bit of farcical nonsense.
Despite the numerous twists and turns in the story and changes in locales from Yonkers to New York City, the plot is straightforward, as are its main protagonists.
An irascible, wealthy but penny-pinching store owner from Yonkers, Horace Vandergelder (Tom McCamus), a widower who plans to re-marry, refuses to let his niece Ermengarde (Cara Ricketts) marry her love, a poor artist Ambrose Kemper (Skye Brandon).
Matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi (Seana McKenna) pretends she is helping Vandergelder find a suitable bride, but is scheming to marry him herself. Meanwhile, Vandergelder’s beleaguered clerk Cornelius Hackl (Mike Shara), longing for excitement that includes kissing a girl for the first time, meets the woman of his dreams, a widowed New York milliner Irene Molloy (Laura Condlln). Ironically but predictably Molloy happens to be the one Vandergelder intends to marry.
Pulitzer Prize winning writer Thornton Wilder made no apologies for borrowing characters and even some scenes from other literary works with wild abandon. Dolly Levi came from French playwright Molière’s comedy L’avare.
Wilder referred to his play as a ‘‘free adaptation’’ of Johann Nestroy’s Einen Jux will er sich Machen , which was adapted from British playwright John Oxenham’s 1835 comedy A Day Well Spent.
Yet liberally pinching from others didn’t guarantee immediate success. His first adaptation – The Merchant of Yonkers – failed on Broadway in 1938, running for only 28 performances.
The Matchmaker, which was released as a film in 1958 with Shirley Booth (Hazel), Paul Ford (Sergeant Bilko) and a pair of youngsters Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment) and pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins, was adapted as Hello, Dolly!, which began in 1963 and became one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals.
The Stratford Company, expertly guided by director Chris Abraham and his talented technical crew, have a theatrical field day with the old standard, reveling in broad characterizations, tipping over chairs and tables, exploding tomatoes and delightfully unveiling and racing through scene after scene of utter confusion that would have made the Marx Brothers proud.
McCamus is at his scene-stealing best, chewing up and spitting out his dialogue in almost vaudevillian fashion. Even without a song in her heart, McKenna makes you forget Barbara Streisand for the evening, perhaps even relegating Booth to the status of distant memory.
As the hysterical funny innocent Hackl, Shara almost tops the first-rate buffoonery he trotted out earlier in the week in Cymbeline. Geraint Wyn Davies, as Malachi Stack, is a delightful drunkard in search of momentary employment. Condlln is a wonderfully entertaining Molloy while Ricketts and Brandon round out the class nicely in what are essentially minor roles.
And what about all those theatrical conventions? They are still there and handled with great ease and comic skill by the wonderful cast. So if you’re looking for characters hidden under tables and in closets, men disguised as women and a convoluted conspiracy to bring young lovers together and result in a happy marital ending, the Festival Theatre is the place to be until October 27.
**** out of 4 stars.
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes
Tickets: 1-800-567-1600 or online http://www.stratfordfestival.ca/
This review is also posted online at: the beat magazine