UNC School of the Arts' production of The Matchmaker breathes hilarious life into Thornton Wilder's completely eclipsed play. Although the original 1955 Broadway production was a success, the play could never compete with Wilder's two other Pulitzer Prize winning pieces, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. Yet unfortunately for the play, it will forever live in the shadow of the hugely popular Broadway musical adaptation and subsequent film, Hello Dolly!
As a result, theatre aficionados with a strong affinity for classic musicals may find it a bit challenging not to expect an orchestra to strike up at any moment. When Cornelius Hackl instructs young apprentice Barnaby Tucker to "put on his Sunday clothes," or when a milliner, Mrs. Molloy, foresees wearing ribbons down her back in summertime, it is almost inevitable for one to hum the accompanying songs to oneself. Surely there is futile anticipation for the trademark title number "Hello Dolly" and the iconic showstopper "Before the Parade Passes By," both made famous by the likes of Carol Channing and Barbara Streisand. Yet even with the absence of such familiar tunes, Wilder's script is far from inadequate, as its comedic strength provides a musicality of its own.
The production chronicles the farcical mingling of a band of characters all on a unique quest for love and adventure. The gruffly rich businessman, Horace Vandergelder, forbids his young niece, Ermengarde, to marry the poor artist she loves while simultaneously enlisting the services of matchmaker, Dolly Levi, to secure marital prospects for himself. Complications intensify when Vandergelder's two loyal shop clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby, rebelliously decide to close the store in pursuit of excitement. They find much more than they bargained for when a chance encounter acquaints the two men with a city hat-store owner and her assistant. Chaos, love connections, and mistaken identity all unfold throughout the play, yet mastermind widow Dolly Levi has a cunning plan at the root of it all.
Director and School of Drama Dean Carl Forsman fully capitalizes on the comedic value of the play by reinforcing the elements of pacing and the build-up of energy in every scene. The production relies on juxtaposition of situational satire – characters diving under tables or hidden behind veils – with a handful of soliloquies wherein characters break the fourth wall to confide sentiment to the audience. Forsman creates a beautiful balance of the two components so all the theatrical devices required of the script propel the story instead of over saturating it.
However, in order for any comedy of this caliber to triumph, much of the weight falls upon the execution of the cast. With the exception of moments in which a few actors seem to over reach for a laugh or unnecessarily exaggerate the state of their characters – overt drunken stumbling and speech – the cast indeed performs excellently.
Savannah-Lee Mumford without question has a cumbersome task of portraying iconic matchmaker Dolly Levi yet does so flawlessly. She encompasses the cool and collected demeanor and fast-talking persuasiveness audiences have come to identify with the character while also succeeding in making Levi very much her own creation.
Dylan Arnold and Morgan Hahn make the perfect duo as Cornelius and Barnaby. Both young men possess innocent charm and comedic dexterity. Katie Ailion provides a fine performance as Irene Molloy. Ailion brings a great deal of chutzpah to a character with natural backbone. Although Luis Quintero may not successfully capture the maturity of Horace Vadergelder's age, the young actor does display the belligerent dominance needed to make the performance effective.
There are a number of production qualities that add to the success of the play. Aidan Griffiths' exquisite 19th century costumes pair beautifully with Johan Teng's wig and makeup design. Amber Primm's set design is a star in itself, as it is cleverly transformed into the four various locales of the piece, each exhibiting meticulous distinctiveness.
As a whole, while UNC School of the Arts' production of The Matchmaker may not completely overturn the glory of Thornton Wilder's other creations or the magnificent musical adaptation, it is bursting with laughs and is undoubtedly an adventure. Pudding!
The show runs through Nov. 16. For details, see the sidebar.