Thornton Wilder can hardly be described as one of this country’s overlooked playwrights. His 1938 classic, “Our Town,” remains a staple, with David Cromer’s piercing revival (which originated in Chicago in 2008, and subsequently became the talk of the town in New York) generating something of a renaissance for a work many first experience in high school.
‘THE MATCHMAKER’ Highly recommended When: Through April 10 Where: Goodman Theatre,170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $25 – $82 Info: (312)443-3800; www.goodmantheatre.org Run time: 2 hoursand 40 minutes with one intermission
And of course if you’ve ever sung the tunes from “Hello, Dolly!,” Jerry Herman’s hit musical, you’ve unwittingly recited lines lifted directly from Wilder’s 1955 play “The Matchmaker” — just one of the many pleasurable revelations in the Goodman Theatre’s lavish, deliciously rendered revival of that farce-with-a-heart work, for which director Henry Wishcamper has gathered a purposefully diverse and uniformly gifted cast.
It is a testament to the Goodman production that even if the infectiously familiar score of “Hello, Dolly!” is absent, the Wilder play sings in its own zanily wonderful way. This is not just because popular songs of the period in which it is set (1896) have been laced into the story, but because the message of“The Matchmaker” is so on target: That life is to be fully lived, that having just enough money is an excellent lubricant for happiness, and that love, appetite and adventure are, in the end, the most valuable things of all. And all this shines through in Wishcamper’s interpretation of the play as a sort of all-American, yet almost Shakespearean-style romantic comedy.
“The Matchmaker,” which begins in Yonkers, but unfolds primarily in New York City — that center of all things larger-than-life and full of surprises, just about 20 miles away — operates on many tracks. But all its characters are driven by the desire to set themselves free, even if that freedom comes paired with the love (and marriage) trap.
To begin with there is Dolly Gallagher Levi (Kristine Nielsen, a New York import, whose innate charm, warmth and comic flair are all-pervasive). Among the many freelance jobs devised by this indomitable, fast-talking (and even faster-thinking) Yonkers widow is to play matchmaker to the town’s richest, if crankiest and most parsimonious self-made millionaire, the merchant Horace Vandegelder (Allen Gilmore, a comic genius of high energy and shrewd manners).
Both Dolly and Horace have been in emotional retreat since the death of their respective spouses. But while Horace believes Dolly is vetting just the right woman to be his second wife, she is, of course, hellbent on making him her own. And though they are oil and water on the surface, each possesses just enough of what the other lacks.
At the same time, Vandegelder’s two clerks — thirtysomething Cornelius Hackl (Postell Pringle, a veteran of the hip-hop Q Brothers’ shows who is right at home here), and wide-eyed 17-year-old Barnaby Tucker (Behzad Dabu, a fleet physical comic who delivers the play’s epilogue to perfection) — are desperate to escape the grind of their going-nowhere jobs. So when Vandegelder heads to New York, they shutter the store and travel there, too, determined to eat in a fine restaurant and get kissed by a woman.
Their first stop is the posh hat shop of another widow, Irene Molloy (Elizabeth Ledo in a showstopping comic turn as a little fireball of a woman). Instead of a date with Vandegelder, she and her assistant, Minnie Fay (Sydney Germaine), become entangled with Cornelius and Barnaby. Adding to the chaos is the fact that Horace’s niece, the timid Ermengarde (Theo Allyn), has fled to New York with her true love, Ambrose (Ronobir Lahiri), an artist Horace opposes for his lack of financial security.
As it happens, they all end up in the town home of yet another widow, the fabulously wealthy, lovelorn, half-mad Flora Van Huysen (Marilyn Dodds Frank in a hilariously wacky turn).
This is a grandly budgeted production, with spectacular sets by Neil Patel (the bird cages alone are a wonder), lighting by David Lander, gorgeous costumes by Jenny Mannis and original music by Richard Woodbury.
It is rare that you will hear an audience giggling out loud at so many different moments in a show as they do here. But the real clincher is that the laughter is ideally matched to Wilder’s deeper, life-affirming spirit.