Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Though Not Without Its Merits, 'The Matchmaker' Fails to Make an Emotional Connection -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Matchmaker
by Thornton Wilder
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 10

In books, theater, film and television, the same basic story can be told in multiple versions and variations, with one's abiding affinity often connected to the incarnation first encountered.

Commonly, if a book I like gets turned into a movie, I can't help but rue how much is missing. Beloved films adapted into musicals can be excellent in their own right, but rarely supplant my preference for the celluloid version, except if I saw the musical first, as in the case of The Producers and Hairspray.

To which you may well shout something like, "But The Producers was a movie 30+ years before it was a musical, and Hairspray almost 15, how could you have not seen--and loved--them first? They're both wonderful films!"

And even if it wasn't an imagined rejoinder in my own mind, I wouldn't debate that. Because I'm not insisting one's preferred iteration is necessarily superior, just that it feels that way.

Which is a somewhat convoluted way of getting to my point that as I watched The Matchmaker at Chicago's Goodman Theatre Sunday night, I acutely missed the music of Hello, Dolly!, its famed and fantastic musical adaptation.

Having been heavily indoctrinated to the Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau movie version of Hello, Dolly! when I was a wee child, I couldn't help but want the characters of Dolly Levi and Horace Vandergelder to break out in song on the Goodman stage.

In fact, I couldn't help sing "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," "Hello, Dolly!" and other chestnuts in my head. And while my regard for this selection in my Goodman subscription series is more middling than for most of their presentations, the theater should nonetheless be rather appreciative that I resisted the urge to belt out tunes from the balcony. (Particularly as I have a singing voice reminiscent of a tortured frog.)

Watching the Goodman's Matchmaker, with a fine, diverse cast under the direction of Henry Wishcamper, I could certainly envision mid-1950s audiences getting a kick out of Thornton Wilder's farce about a curmudgeonly Yonkers merchant enlisting the aid of a matchmaker to pursue a romantic interest in Manhattan, with considerable hijinks involving his two clerks, niece, her suitor, a pair of women working at a millinery shop and others.

Clearly, Wilder--who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for both Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth--was a gifted scribe and the scenarios he creates are fun even sans music, although even he was approaching the material for a second time after his The Merchant of Yonkers had flopped on Broadway in 1938. (The show's basic premise seems to have originated in the first half of the 19th century.)

But not only did The Matchmaker feel, detractingly to me, like Hello, Dolly! minus the buoyant music, little about it felt contemporary, relevant or vital.

Plus, I thought it could well have ended about a half-hour before it did; at 2 hours and 40 minutes it became a bit of a drag.

Recent Tony Award nominee Kristine Nielsen is good as Dolly, Allen Gilmore makes for a not-so-nice and cantankerous Horace, Postell Pringle is swell as Cornelius Hackl--the chief clerk Vandergelder promotes to chief clerk--and others in the cast do nice work. 

Certainly, for a 1955 play taking place in 1896, it is great that the Goodman cast so colorblindly--with differently-abled and transgender performers in addition to those of various races and ethnicities--but this shouldn't be noteworthy in 2016.

All the roles are well-played and while I didn't wholeheartedly embrace The Matchmaker--especially as it would seem far more topical selections could have enhanced Goodman's slate in an election year with considerable inherent drama--I feel I got the full force of the farce via this production, with nice costuming by Jenny Mannis and a fine range of sets by Neil Patel.

For the roughly 800 works of theater I've seen since 1999, I don't recall ever before even noticing The Matchmaker being staged. (A bit oddly, Hello, Dolly! long-stood as the most famous musical I'd never seen onstage, and I've still only seen it once, though remain well-acquainted with the movie.)

So there's nothing wrong with having been introduced to a classic play; it's just that I was long attuned to its narrative, much more tunefully.  

And, per my purview, considerably more delectably.

I'm willing to accept culpability for my own predilections--and I'd be curious how patrons oblivious to the musical adaptation may have embraced what they saw--but suffice it to say, despite some nice moments and hearty laughs, The Matchmaker didn't make me fall in love.

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