Lost in Yonkers

VLT mines the myth of simpler times in the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly!

Imagine living in an era of this American continent when being “half a millionaire” was more than enough juice to make you the leading citizen of Yonkers, and one of New York’s most eligible bachelors to boot.

Hell, Elon Musk just made that much in the time it took you to read this sentence. There, he made it again — half a mil in pocket change.

Needless to say, half-a-million simoleons ain’t what it used to be, but money is money, and grouchy old “half a millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (Michael P. Watkins) has the stash, and the professional “meddler” Dolly Gallagher Levi (Sue Schroeder-White), recently widowed and broke, has her eyes on the prize.

Make no mistake, then: Money is a leading character in this hoary musical set at the turn of the 20th century, and Dolly is playing the long con, albeit with just enough charm and cunning and proletarian sentiment that she seems to be doing everyone else a favor.

Hello, Dolly! — currently at Very Little Theatre under the direction of Gerald Walters — is a distinctly American fairy tale, a romantic-materialist comedy of manners that minds the bank like a comptroller, auditing every motive in its path. The intricacies of the plot are too immense to unweave here, but in the end it all amounts to standard rom-com boilerplate — a series of romantic entanglements (deceit, miscommunication, misdirection, etc.) played for laughs and ending in enlightened coupling-up all around.

All’s well that ends well, I suppose, but VLT’s production is a mixed bag. Watkins and Schroeder-White are solid enough, but the most interesting moments are reserved for the supporting cast, especially the interplay of Vandergelder’s two clerks, Cornelius (Cody Mendonca) and Barnaby (Sheldon Hall), and their romantic interests, the milliner Irene (Josie Thomas) and her shop assistant Minnie (Kenady Conforth).

These four actors bring a vibrant flair — an old-fashioned bon vie — to the proceedings, and their scenes together are far and away the best. Conforth is especially fun to watch, a young actor who’s been well schooled in the orthodoxies of musical theater to the point where they are fluid and entirely natural. She’s really, really good — fully engaged with every moment.

Something about this production, however, smacks of missed opportunities. The very decision to mount this show at this moment in history speaks to a deep desire to escape into a vision of simpler times, which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. The problem is the idea that Hello, Dolly! represents a simpler time is a ludicrous bit of shopworn nostalgia: The whole show delights in a tabloid version of reality that looks a lot like what we’re suffering today, only with the gauzy gaze of old Monopoly pieces being shunted around on stage.

The old myth that money makes happiness is still in play in Hello, Dolly!, but because it takes place long ago — and because a couple dozen zeroes have been knocked off the tycoon’s fortune — it’s played straight, as some curative to the steroidal greed of today, when actually it reveals its roots. That’s fine.

But even timeless Shakespeare gets updated and adapted to comment on the times, and it would have been much more enticing to see an occasional wink and nod in VLT’s production — something to highlight the similarities to today instead of the differences. After all, it’s Vandergelder himself who reveals the play’s implicit criticism of its own assumptions, when he says: “Money is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about…”

How fun it might have been to let this stink spread a bit more, instead of covering it in bouquet of nostalgia. After all, not everything comes up roses.

Hello, Dolly! plays through April 13 at Very Little Theatre; tickets at thevlt.com or 541-344-7751.