‘Hello, Dolly!’ sashays onto Drury Lane stage
By Catey Sullivan For Sun-Times Media October 23, 2013 5:22PM
Karen Ziemba | Getty Images file photo
♦ To Jan. 5
♦ Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.
♦ (630) 530-0111;
Updated: November 26, 2013 6:10AM
It’s not every day that a Tony Award-winning actress decides to park herself in Oak Brook for the season, but that’s precisely what acclaimed triple-threat actor, singer and dancer Karen Ziemba is doing this fall as she takes on the iconic role of Dolly Levi in Drury Lane Theatre’s staging of “Hello, Dolly!”
The show, which opened Oct. 17, marks Ziemba’s debut at the venerable theater, portraying a Yonkers, N.Y., matchmaker whose meddlesome ways are way ahead of her time. Ziemba — who won a Tony in 2000 for her work in the Broadway musical “Contact” — now is charged with anchoring a musical that features such indelible show tune standards as “Before the Parade Passes By,” “It Takes a Woman” and the anthemic, eminently hummable title tune.
“This is a story about human connections,” Ziemba says, “about making contact and how that’s one of the most important things you can do in your life.”
Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and Michael Stewart’s (book) adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s 1955 play “The Matchmaker” is also about celebrating the life-affirming exuberance that comes with embracing each day to its fullest, director Rachel Rockwell says.
“I’m such a huge fan of Thornton Wilder’s writing,” Rockwell says. “I love how he finds incredible magic and joy in the mundane. He shows you how to shift your perspective so that you truly appreciate the simple joys around you. (The) ‘Hello, Dolly!’ world is a place full of beauty and wonderment in the ordinary.
“I suppose it’s a little challenging when you’re doing what some people would refer to as a warhorse, but it’s also liberating. The material is so wonderful it just delivers itself.”
Actually, it’s not quite that simple. Dolly Levi is one of those larger-than-life characters who comes equipped with the baggage of the megawatt actresses who have played the part. The role is usually interpreted as a brassy, sassy quintessential Broadway broad, and has been brought to life by a formidable roster of divas including Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Barbra Streisand and Pearl Bailey. Rockwell went against type in tapping Ziemba for the part. A classically trained dancer who is known as much for her onstage grace as for her full-lunged belting chops, Ziemba will embody a different kind of Dolly.
“We chose Karen because she’s not your typical broad,” Rockwell says. “She has an elegance to her, an elegance and a quirkiness. That isn’t to say Dolly isn’t larger than life and conniving — she has to be conniving. She’s a woman living in Edwardian America, so she has to take her power where she can. But she’s artful about it. We don’t need to be pulling out rubber chickens to get the audience’s attention.”
Rockwell’s own history with “Hello, Dolly!” dates back 20 years when she made her Chicago debut as the perpetually teary ingenue Ermengarde in Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire (Ill.)’s staging of the show. This time around, Deerfield, Ill., resident Laura Savage plays the hormonal supporting role in addition to being a “second set of eyes and ears” as Rockwell’s associate choreographer.
“Ermengarde is kind of a whiny, spoiled brat in the beginning,” Savage says, “but by the end, she’s more of an independent young woman. It’s a role that’s a lot of fun.” Also enjoyable? Working with a Tony winner Savage has looked up to for years, she adds.
“When Rachel told me Karen was our Dolly I died. I mean I saw her in ‘Curtains’ on Broadway a few years ago and just adored her. And now I’m actually in the same show with her? I’m ecstatic,” Savage says.
For Ziemba, playing Dolly means connecting with the powerhouse actors who have embodied the role in the past.
“Pearl, Barbra, Carol, Ethel — they’ve all played Dolly because, hello, it’s a fabulous character,” she says. “Now it’s my chance to do it. A good friend of mine, when I told him I was playing Dolly Levi he was like, ‘Congratulations, you’ve graduated.’ ”