By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Henry Wishcamper
At the Goodman Theater, Chicago
Over-the-top performances reduce The Matchmaker from a romantic farce to an unfunny, silly-stupid endurance battle
One can wonder why the creatives at the Goodman Theatre decided to mount Thornton Wilder’s 1955 farce, The Matchmaker as a comic work, a theatrical style that they have had limited success with over the past few years? That decision is even more curious since the Goodman has mounted several major musicals, like Brigadoon, to artistic success in the past few years. With the major effort needed to mount The Matchmaker, presenting the vastly superior and more popular musical, Hello Dolly! would seem like a no-brainier. Surely Jerry Herman’s brilliant score and Michael Stewart’s condensed book captures Thornton Wilder’s farcical anti-realism with a sweet, toe-tapping score and a lovable persona of Dolly Levi to lead the hapless couples into romance and love. I’d much prefer that Hello Dolly! replace The Matchmaker since I (and the hordes of fans of Herman’s musical) can’t help but “see” Dolly making her grand entrance to The Harmonia Gardens Restaurant to the tune sung by the dancing waiters. But since that isn’t the case here, let’s analyze director Henry Wishcamper’s production.
The major decision to play most of the characters as exaggerated, over-the-top, almost cartoonish beings didn’t serve the material well. With Allen Gilmore playing Horace Vandegeld as a nasty curmudgeon devoid of a heart and Kristine Nielsen playing Dolly as an opportunist who often uses goofy facial expressions reducing her matchmaking endeavors to silly-stupid proportions; the two stars lack empathy. These exaggerations, coupled with the lack of romantic sparks among any of the couples, sure adds to the absurdities of human courtship rituals in circa 1896 in New York state. Fans of the musical will follow much of the action until characters and plot points are different between Wilder’s The Matchmaker and Herman’s Hello Dolly!
This two hour and forty-five minute comedy is too complex, with too many sub plots that wears out its welcome. On opening night, I noticed that younger audience members laugh more, since they were not as influenced by the musical as many of us old-time musical patrons. While I tried to be open to The Matchmaker (this being my first time seeing it), I’m not a fan of exaggerated, forced attempts at humor. This production played out as not trusting the material, as it seemed to push the humor down our throats. I didn’t find the work funny, just irritating.
The mixed racial casting worked effectively, but using sitar music was a stretch. Several performances stood out: Allen Gilmore, Elizabeth Ledo (Irene Molloy) and Behzad Dabu (Barnaby Tucker) with a strong turn from Marc Grapey (Malachi Stack) as he delivered a funny aside about vices.
In summary, I give mixed ratings to The Matchmaker. It had its moments, but overall, it just tried too hard. It lacks the sweetness and charm of Jerry Herman’s Hello Dolly! It may be more enjoyable to those who don’t know the musical and those who love over-the-top humor.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: March 14, 2016
For more info checkout The Matchmaker page at theatreinchicago.com
At the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL, call 312-443-3800, www.goodmantheatre.org, tickets $25 – $82, Tuesdays & Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 2 & 7:30 pm, Fridays at6 pm, Saturdays at 2 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 & 7:30 pm, running time is 2 hours, 45 minutes with intermission, through April 10, 2016