Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Lizzie as Dolly

Well Hello Dolly - Lizzie Robbins looking swell as Dolly Levi, back where she belongs.

Pictures: Christopher Commander

Hello Dolly

Sutton Arts Theatre


If ever you wanted a definition of madness then producing a big-cast, Broadway musical at Sutton Arts Theatre is a good start.

Where other little theatres have wings, Sutton has walls, while fitting in a 10 piece orchestra into the auditorium would mean losing half the seats which means the band is exiled to the tea room next door.

Yet against all the odds Sutton has rapidly established a reputation for quality musicals opening with a magnificent West Side Story, followed by an excellent The Wedding Singer and this year a first-rate Hello Dolly.

The Jerry Herman musical won a then record 10 Tony awards when it opened on Broadway in 1964 and a revival this year starring Bette Midler has picked up another four.

The story is based on Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker and tells of Dolly Levi, a widowed matchmaker – she calls it meddling - who can not only find you a spouse but provides dancing lessons and all manner of side lines to turn a dollar, or more likely a nickel in turn of the 19th century New York.

Horace and Dolly

Gary Pritchard as Horace Vandergelder slowly being bamboozled by Lizzie Robbins' Dolly

She is employed to find him a wife by the well-known half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder of Yonkers, a curmudgeonly corn and seed merchant who makes Scrooge look positively generous. But Dolly decides a half millionaire is just the man for her, which means keeping Horace’s affections far away from the women she has lined up for him.

Alongside that she is asked for help by struggling artist Ambrose Kemper, who wants to marry Horace's niece Ermengarde, who bursts into tears at every opportunity. Horace has banned the union as he can’t see an artist earning enough to keep her.

Horace sets off to New York to appear in a parade and find a wife so underpaid and overworked assistants Cornelius and Barnaby decide when the cat’s away the mice. . . well you know the rest.

So they create an excuse to close the store and set off for the Big Apple where, with a dollar or so between them, they pretend to be rich

Throw in milliner Irene who hates hats and her assistant Minnie who hitch up with the  pretend-to-be-loaded would-be playboys and then find everyone ending up in the expensive . . . very . . . restaurant and mayhem is guaranteed.

Barnaby, Minnie, Irene and Cornelius

Will Young's Barnaby works out the disastrous finances as Naomi Steele's Minnie, Gemma Smyth's Irene and Robbie Newton's Cornelius enjoy the Harmonia Gardens dance contest

Lizzie Robbins is a delight as Dolly, displaying a fine voice in songs such as Before the Parade Passes By, lovely timing and a nice sense of comedy to carry everything along in a fun way, all matched by Gary Pritchard as Horace who almost managed a smile at one point, although it could have been wind. A gloriously grumpy performance and a contrast to Pritchard’s last appearance as would be lothario, quick talking Gilbert in Anyone For Breakfast at Sutton last month.

Robbie Newton, who was Sammy in The Wedding Singer and husband Stan in the exceptional A Streetcar Named Desire, turns in another fine performance as Cornelius Hackl showing a bent for musical comedy along with Will Young, no, not that one, but an experienced and well regarded local theatre regular with a well measured performance as Barnaby who is worried all the dining and wooing won’t leave enough from their dollar to see Barnum’s stuffed whale – which seems to be his life’s ambition.

And their love interests – if you ignore Barnaby’s whale – are milliner Irene Malloy and her assistant Minnie Fay. Irene is played by Gemma Smyth who was Roscoe in Sutton's One Man, Two Guvnors, and shows a fine alto voice which is almost seductive in the lower registers in songs such as Ribbons Down My Back.

Naomii Steele shows plenty of promise as the rather forward, not for her to say but she’ll say it anyway, Minnie. And she says it clear as a bell with lovely diction.

Running around in the background we have Sophie-Louise Johnson whose name is longer than anything her character Ermengarde manages to say without bursting into tears. Every time she appears the wailing starts –  with Chris Commander, another Wedding Singer lead, as the somewhat intense and angst-ridden artist Ambrose. One imagines he must have a garret somewhere where he can suffer for his art.

We have Andrew Tomlinson as the Maître d' of the Harmonia Gardens restaurant and Valerie Tomlinson as Ernestina Money who Dolly is trying to offload . . . sorry, find a husband for as well as flower seller Mrs Rose, played by Carol Westcott and the judge played by regular Dan Payne.

There is also good support from an 18 strong ensemble who continue a standard set at the start in West Side Story. The ensemble is not made up of trained dancers but that has not stopped experienced choreographer Sarah Haines – Anita in West Side Story incidentally – stretching the cast and drilling some interesting and well co-ordinated moves into the routines which means that dance numbers become an enjoyable part of the show rather than musical interludes with movement.

At times there are 30 people on stage and, to the credit of directors and choreographer, it always looks as if every move is planned and rehearsed, never just a crowd, and it all comes together with the hallmark song of the show – associated for ever with Louis Armstrong – Hello Dolly.

Directors Emily Armstrong and Dexter Whitehead have done a fine job in maintaining the standard they have set in the past three years – next up is Fame by the way – but even more remarkable is the fact they not only attracted so many youngsters in the first place for the Sharks and Jets but have retained them. After all youngsters are the future of theatre, both amateur and professional, whether as performers or audience. Several of the Sutton casts will be in the Stage Experience production of West Side Story at The New Alexandra Theatre (23-26 Aug) incidentally.

The set, designed by Mark Nattrass, is deceptively simple with revolving flats which help create street scenes, Horace’s store, Irene’s shop, a station, a courtroom and the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, complete with private dining rooms – a real challenge with no wings, no flies and limited backstage access.

There has been no skimping on the costume budget either with costume changes almost as regular as scene changes and with costumes which looked authentic for New York around 1900.

Lighting by David Ashton, is imaginative – I liked the changing red, white and blue LED spots in the parade sequence – while Sophie Clarke and Luca Hillier did a good job in the hot work on the two follow spots.

Finally Tom Brookes who was musical director for West Side Story returns with an excellent 10 piece band, larger than many a professional touring musical production can muster incidentally, and the size shows with a full and balanced sound, and despite the orchestra in a different room, it works a treat.

Its nine years since Hello Dolly last toured the UK and, discounting the 1984 production with Danny La Rue as Dolly, the last West End production was in 1979, starring the original Broadway Dolly, Carol Channing, so this is a chance to see a fine, fun musical and one that does not pass by too often, here on your doorstep. To 24-06-17.

Roger Clarke


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