REVIEW: ‘Matchmaker’ brings 1880’s Yonkers to People’s Light

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For Digital First Media

Not everyone wants to leave Yonkers.
At least not “our” Yonkers, the Yonkers of 2017. It’s a reasonably prosperous inner suburb of New York City that many people seem to enjoy living in.
But in the imagination of playwright Thornton Wilder the Yonkers of the 1880’s is the place his characters want to escape, the place where nothing much ever happens except the drudgery of work and social conventions. The only way out for anyone with a yen for living large is to head south — for adventure (and perhaps romance) in the Big Apple.
“The Matchmaker,” now on stage at People’s Light in Malvern is Wilder’s revision of his earlier Broadway flop “The Merchant of Yonkers,” which in turn was his adaptation of yet another 19th-century farce. The double Pulitzer-Prize winner (for fiction and drama) managed in the midst of the Great Depression to rewrite his failed comedy into a successful audience-pleasing farce with slapstick, pratfalls, mistaken identities and love triumphant.

However the thoughtful artist Wilder, perhaps our most underrated 20th century writer, could not avoid inserting some simple lessons about people’s need for adventure, the virtue of generosity and the importance of companionship. Wilder loved what he called “the gallantry of the American spirit” and “The Matchmaker” is an expression of this affection. Happily “The Matchmaker” was considerably more successful than its predecessor and served as the basis for a 1958 film and of course the mega-musical “Hello Dolly” which followed in 1964.
The story concerns the quest for a bride by Yonkers’ “leading citizen” Horace Vandergelder, a walking catalog of human faults who browbeats and bullies his daughter Ermengarde, employees Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker and his neighbors but is secretly longing for companionship. The widower hires Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widow herself and the “matchmaker” of the title to find him a suitable spouse. Vandergelder is fond of statements such as “Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools” while making a proper fool of himself.

“The Matchmaker” is on the Leonard C. Haas Stage at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern, through March 12. For tickets call (610) 644-3500 or go to peopleslight.org.

Of course Horace’s quest to meet his potential bride Mrs. Molloy is sidetracked and turned upside down by the competing needs of his daughter to elope with (in Horace’s view) an wholly unsuitable suitor, his employees’ need to have “an adventure” in the city and Dolly’s own plan to tame and marry the hot-tempered Vandergelder. All have their own pressing reasons to escape Yonkers.
People’s Light Artistic Director Abigail Adams directs and working with music director and composer Liz Filios adds live period music and a healthy helping of People’s Light trademark warmth and color to the production that makes for a pleasant diversion in our tumultuous times. With sixteen cast members and musicians in this production People’s Light continues to defy the sensible but sad trend to go small on local stages.
As Horace Vandergelder, People’s Light veteran Graham Smith occasionally and appropriately plays a trombone, which matches his horn-like tones when things (in fact just about everything) make him angry. There’s plenty for him to be enraged about, as the lachrymose Ermengarde (Mina Kawahara) and determined Ambrose (James lJames, who last season riveted audiences in “An Octoroon” at the Wilma) make their elopement and the resolutely adventure-seeking Cornelius (Brandon Meeks) and Barnaby (Christopher R. Brown) find their way to the milliner’s shop run by the flighty and flirty Mrs. Molloy (Teri Lamm) and her meek, wide-eyed assistant Minnie Fay (Tabitha Allen). Casting her skeptical eye on it all is Dolly Levi (Kathryn Petersen) who though slightly less flamboyant than her musical descendent in “Hello Dolly” is no less competent and capable of handling any sudden plot shift.
The always versatile Pete Pryor as Malachi Stack and Mark Lazar as the Cabman make the best of their undeveloped characters, and while Lazar can get laughs as the dim-witted passer-by sucked into the action, Malachi Stack seems more like George Bernard Shaw’s Burglar from Heartbreak House, brought in mainly to deliver the author’s message and keep the action moving. It all winds up at the home of the high-strung but kindly Flora Van Huysen (Melanye Finister) who shares Dolly’s ability to expect the unexpected.

Shown from left are, Tabitha Allen, Christopher R. Brown, Peter DeLaurier, Brandon Meeks and Teri Lamm in a scene from “The Matchmaker.”
Photo by Mark Garvin

Set designer Tony Straiges, who created the toweringly mighty, mathematical set for People’s Light 2013 production of “Noises Off” has created a much simpler and more open but no less vast set, looking in part like one of the new Barnes Foundation galleries hung with 19th century farm implements.

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