Hoopla

Nina Swanson returns to Theatre C.R. musical realm in 'Hello, Dolly!'

STUDIO RESERVED PHOTO

Matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi (Nina Swanson) has her own sights set on dashing half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (Greg Smith) in “Hello, Dolly!” The classical musical opens Friday (9/20) and continues through Oct. 13 at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
STUDIO RESERVED PHOTO Matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi (Nina Swanson) has her own sights set on dashing half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (Greg Smith) in “Hello, Dolly!” The classical musical opens Friday (9/20) and continues through Oct. 13 at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The last time Nina Swanson flew through a musical at Theatre Cedar Rapids was 1988, when she starred in the title role of Peter Pan.

She has done a couple of TCR plays in the interim — “Lettice & Lovage” in 1994 and “Calendar Girls” in 2015. Most recently, she dusted off her dancing shoes for starring roles in Revival Theatre productions of the musicals “Grey Gardens” and “Victor/Victoria” in 2017 and “Nine to Five” last March.

But she’s ready to get back in the familiar lights of TCR, saying hello to meddling matchmaker Dolly Levi from Friday (9/20) to Oct. 13.

Art imitates life for her, bringing a tear to her eye when she hears the familiar lyrics: “It’s so nice to have you back where you belong.”

“So when you say ‘She’s back,’ it has a little extra meaning,” director Brian Glick of Cedar Rapids said.

“It does,” Swanson replied. “It’s really meaningful. It makes me cry sometimes when we do that. I think, ‘Am I going to be able to finish this song?’”

“The hat will keep your focus,” Glick countered.

“No kidding,” she said with a laugh, referring to the lavish headpiece she’ll be wearing as she descends the iconic staircase during her jubilant return to New York City’s swanky Harmonia Gardens restaurant.

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“They’re really pulling out all the stops on this,” she said of the production, featuring opulent scenery and costumes reflecting the turn of the 20th century.

Swanson’s own return “feels very similar,” to her previous outings, where she played the Narrator in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in 1985, opposite now-Hollywood star Ron Livingston; Guenevere in “Camelot” in 1986; and Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors” in 1987, among other lead roles. She stepped out of the spotlight after a divorce years ago, when she needed to focus on raising her son and no longer had evenings free for rehearsals and performances.

“It’s just really fun to be here,” she said of her TCR return. “It’s a little more laid-back than other productions I’ve been, because we have a longer rehearsal period. That can be a good thing/bad thing, but the good thing is that people are a little more relaxed. It’s not so pressured.”

“Hello, Dolly!” opened on Broadway in 1964. Carol Channing originated the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a matchmaker and widow intent on making her own match before the parade passes her by.

Other noted Dollys include Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, Ethel Merman on Broadway; Mary Martin in London; Dorothy Lamour, Eve Arden, Yvonne De Carlo, Betty White, Sally Struthers and Betty Buckley in touring and regional productions; Barbra Streisand in the 1969 film version; and in the most recent Broadway revival, Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters.

Despite that star power legacy, finding her own Dolly wasn’t hard for Swanson, 64, of Central City.

“I’ve never seen the show, I’ve never seen the movie — even when it came out I don’t think I went to see it — so I can’t help but make it my own,” she said, noting that before auditions, she did watch a few clips and listened to Bette Midler sing the role. Later in the Hoopla interview, she corrected herself, saying she did see a production at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids years ago, but had vague memories of that outing.

Her impetus for auditioning for the show goes back to her childhood, when she heard the Louis Armstrong and Streisand versions on the radio.

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“I spent hours trying to memorize the words, and I could never get them right,” she said. “So I figured now would be the chance to figure out all the words.”

Director Glick has seen five professional productions, including splurging on a third-row seat to see Bernadette Peters on Broadway in July 2018.

“It’s been neat to see all the different versions of it, and how the people have developed it or directed it,” he said. “What’s interesting about it, when I sat and watched the Broadway show, it really is an escape from the world. ‘Hello, Dolly!’ is a fantasy piece — that’s not what New York looked like at the turn of the century.

“It’s about people wanting to fall in love, it’s about people trying not to want to fall in love, and there’s so much joy and adventure in that. When you listen to ‘(Put on your) Sunday Clothes,’ you can’t help but just shed tears of joy. I had that experience, and so did everyone else around me. I’m going, ‘Why am I reacting this way?’ We have myriad things that bring us tears of joy in the world, and that show is one of them,” he said.

“It’s a great escape, and I think anyone who comes to the show who has any sort of suffering in their life or is a Scrooge, can’t help but put a big smile on their face when they watch that show, or at least that number.”

That’s another reason Swanson wanted to audition for Dolly.

“The other reason is from watching (the movie) ‘WALL-E.’ They were doing ‘Sunday Clothes’ and he was just so sweet,” she said.

Composer Jerry Herman’s music stands the test of time, said music director Cameron Sullenberger of Cedar Rapids, who founded Revival Theatre with Glick five years ago, and are teaming up to helm the TCR production. Sullenberger listened to all the recordings he “could get his hands on,” and the various keys, then tailored the score to fit Swanson’s voice.

“We took a mixture of all the great things I heard and saw, and Brian heard and saw, then put it through the lens of our performers,” he said.

Sullenberger deemed the show “quintessential Broadway.”

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“It’s American at its core,” he said, noting it contains marches, cake walks, va-va-voom, fox trots, a little ragtime and Dixieland. “Everything that you want in a musical is packed into this one. That’s why it’s had a long life.

“The movie made us all kind of fall in love with this character who wants to move on in her life, pulling people along in her sweet, conniving ways. It’s also a nod to the time period and how things can be romantic, and how you can find love again.

“There’s a line, ‘Isn’t the world a wonderful place.’ We all need to hear that,” he said. “We’re bombarded with some really negative stuff. It’s nice to once in a while have a good old classic that says, ‘Isn’t the world a beautiful place,’ and that’s what we want the audience to walk away with.”

“We want 500 people to leave their troubles at the door,” Glick added.

Swanson echoed that, and is looking forward to “the pleasure and the enjoyment of connecting with people on stage and with the audience.

“It’s such a communal experience,” she said. Everybody’s there live, in person at the same time — the audience and the performers, both. We’re all together, enjoying this story,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing, just like theater is always a beautiful thing.

GET OUT!

WHAT: “Hello, Dolly!”

WHERE: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids

WHEN: Friday (9/20) to Oct. 13; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday

TICKETS: $22 to $45; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org/event/hello-dolly/2019-09-20/

EXTRAS: ASL-interpreted performance Oct. 12, contact the box office for reserved-section seating

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