CALVIN REMSBERG: Another Director’s Perspective
Calvin has only directed DOLLY once in his career, and it was in the summer of 2010, produced by 3-D Theatricals at the Orange County Pavillion in Santa Ana California starring Ruth Williamson as Dolly Levi!
He also vocally coached Carol Swarbrick for her first DOLLY and says she also has the stuff to be a superb one.
His old friend T.J. Dawson had recently formed a theatre company with his siblings called 3-D Theatricals out of Orange County. They began their premiere season with a production of Peter Pan at the Orange County Pavillion a rather stunning 300-ish seat theater in Santa Ana, California. He took Calvin on a tour of the facility (now owned and operated by the Orange County High School for the Arts) and asked for a wish list of shows to direct from him. Looking at the room, which had a rather ornate turn of the century feel to it, made Calvin immediately think of HELLO, DOLLY! He suggested it and T.J. took him up on it.
It was a brief four week run, with shows Thursday through Friday night, matinees Saturday and Sunday for a total of nineteen performances. They opened on a Friday.
Calvin had seen Carol Channing (three times), Pearl Bailey, Karen Morrow, the Streisand film version and several high school and college performances.
Calvin was in the eighth grade and discussing Christmas presents with his science teacher, Mrs. Jo Torpey. Calvin complained that he didn’t know what to give his parents for Christmas, and Mrs. Torpey asked him if he liked the theatre. He enthusiastically replied yes, and she said if he could the money together, she could arrange to get him seats to this new musical that was going to be trying out pre-Broadway at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. called HELLO, DOLLY! Calvin had to convince his parents to give him the money in good faith, which they did, and he put the tickets in a box under the tree. So, on December 28, 1963 they went to the National to see DOLLY! Just before the opening curtain, Gower Champion came onstage, and announced that Miss Channing had a 105 degree fever,….but had graciously agreed to perform anyway! The audience went wild. Also, he told the audience that they had been rehearsing a new first act finale, and even though the sets and new costumes for that number weren’t ready yet, they wanted to do it for them that night. He said that since that was the case, they would do the existing first act finale (PENNY IN MY POCKET) and then back up and do the new ending as well. Two endings for the price of one……the audience went wild at the end of BEFORE THE PARADE PASSES BY, and Calvin was hooked on the theatre for life. But that reaction was as nothing compared to the rapturous reaction to the HELLO DOLLY number itself. There were TWO encores, before the written playoff encore. Calvin says he will never forget that evening as long as he lives, and it is literally why he sought a career in the theatre. He thought Channing’s outsized personality and warm manner made the show unforgettable. She was THE Dolly….others may have been good, even great, but Carol, was the first, and best!
This was the first time Calvin heard the score. Dazzled would be putting it mildly….a real theatre score…and what orchestrations!!!
Pearlie Mae was also superb as Dolly, and surely put her own spin on it. Complaining all night long that her feet hurt, she occasionally broke the fourth wall and talked right to the audience (as Pearl Bailey rather than as the character Dolly) but the audience ate it up. She really brought out the comedy, and she had excellent chemistry with Cab Calloway, who played her Vandergelder. Though they were both brilliant in the show, the highlight for Calvin was after the final bow, where Pearl and Cab proceeded to kick off their shoes and do another half hour of club material while the audience, already on their feet,stayed standing fort his half hour concert. He remembers that they dueted on THAT OLD BALCK MAGIC and Calloway sang MINNIE THE MOOCHER…beyond that I don’t remember what they sang, other than it was fabulous.
|Billy Daniels and Pearl in the 1975 revival|
It was definitely a gimmick to do an all black DOLLY, but a gimmick that worked. The actors played the show as it was intended to be played, and did it beautifully and excitingly, and when Pearl came down that staircase…well, it was as if there had never been a DOLLY before her. The audience went wild and loved the show all over again. Washington felt proprietary about DOLLY. Many say it was Richard Coe’s love letter of a review in The Washington Post that established Dolly as a bona fide musical smash before it ever got to New York, So Washington felt like it owned DOLLY. When Pearl opened her version there, it was as if Dolly really HAD come home.
|Pearl Bailey and Jack Crowder (as Cornelius)|
Calvin thinks the thing he liked the best about that production was the “concert” after the show….that and Pearl’s ad libs. If he had to pick one thing that he didn’t like, and there really wasn’t anything, it was that he wasn’t used to Ambrose Kemper being a dancer instead of the singer (who entered a singing competition at the Harmonia Gardens). He just wasn’t used to that.
The polka contest replaced COME AND BE MY BUTTERFLY which Calvin saw originally, and he just didn’t like the change. Now he sees the wisdom of it….they just didn’t need another singer in the show,…..and a dance competition was a welcome change.
Calvin really enjoyed researching the evolution of the eating scene, and getting the sequence of events in it from Lee Roy Reams.
Who would Calvin like to see play Dolly?
In todays theatre, that kind of outsized star performance doesn’t really exit anymore, but certainly a Patti Lupone Dolly would be right up there. He also thinks Faith Prince would be a superb DOLLY. But the ultimate DOLLY, and someone who should play it NOW….is Bette MIdler! Get her back on Broadway in DOLLY……and he bets Jerry would even write a new song for her!!!
Calvin loved Ruth Williamson in the role. She was made to play it, and David Allen Jones was a superb foil as her Vandergelder. The production design by John Iacovelli was a little Victorian Doll House affair, with a row of New York brownstones, that all flipped around and unfolded and fit together to become the hat shoppe, the hay and feed store, and the Harmonia Gardens. It was a magical production.
Calvin used one of the Merman numbers, LOVE LOOK IN MY WINDOW right before BFORE THE PARADE PASSES BY, and he really liked the way it worked. He structured it so as to kill the applause after it, and go seamlessly into the monologue without returning to the powerful end of the song. It worked very well, he thinks. He thinks what he contributed more than anything, was his love and respect for the original production of DOLLY, where, without copying it, was certainly inspired by it!
Ruth has that outsized personality that a true star brings to Dolly….plus she can talk a mile a minute and make you understand every word. AND she is a comedienne, which is essential to playing Dolly!
The one negative with the production washe scenery in the production had to be manipulated by the actors, and it was heavy and hard to turn, so he was never able to get the scene changes to happen as quickly as he wanted them to. Not terrible, but important.
Calvin’s choreographer in DOLLY was a tapper, so they included some tapping for the ensemble in SUNDAY CLOTHES…..a great effect as it sounded like the train arriving and leaving…..and it was very exciting to watch.
Barnabys have to be CUTE with a capital C, and have to dance their asses off. Mine was a super talented real teenager from the Orange County High School for the Performing Arts.
If it ain’t broke….don’t fix it!! But he did try to get to the truth of the characters and their relationships….without that, things just are lifeless copies of some long forgotten production, or some memory somewhere. Although, he does believe audiences want some of those iconic moments…..i.e. the eating scene, the Sunday Clothes walk, and the waiters arm waving duck walk with Dolly….there is room for the history as well as the freshness each individual actor brings.
Calvin continued to come in and give notes. There are two dangers in any show…..actor embellishments that can get the scene way out of balance, and timing issues that can get sloppy or lazy as the actors get more relaxed in their roles. He wouldn’t say he adds things after opening….but I does let the show breathe, and tries to keep it on track.
As stated earlier, Calvin has only directed one DOLLY, and he says his favorite memory from that would have to be the infamous eating scene….just brilliant use of breaking the fourth wall that absolutely works. From the major DOLLY’s he has seen, from the pre-Broadway with Carol Channing, it would have to be that first ever performance of Before the Parade Passes By. From the Pearl Bailey Dolly, it would have to be that concert with Cab Calloway after the show, because it was just so unusual. Karen Morrow was the first person he ever heard sing Love Look in My Window and it so moved him that he took it for his own version. Streisand gave him another favorite moment in the highly overlooked Love is Only Love.
Shows are gigantic hits for a reason. DOLLY was superbly written, brilliantly constructed with a failure proof score. You almost can’t ruin this show. Even bad productions of it are good!!
Calvin was fortunate enough to work closely with Jerry on the album of Miss Spectacular which Calvin contracted the chorus for, and sang on. Jerry is a formidable talent and a great guy and one of the great tunesmiths ever to write for the musical theatre. Calvin always tells each of his voice students to learn a couple of Jerry Herman songs for auditions, as they really let people know how you sing.
The biggest change that Calvin has seen in the business since seeing Hello, Dolly! in 1963 is the lack of Broadway stars. We now have television and film stars doing Broadway shows…..it just isn’t the same.
Everyone is always sad to leave Dolly behind….particularly Ruth!
Hello, Dolly! is superbly built, fabulous orchestrations, brilliantly building choreography…. Personally Calvin thinks it is helped immeasurably by the frenzy in which the audience is left after the WAITER’S GALLOP, which immediately precedes the title number.
Calvin loves DOLLY!!! It changed his life and made him go into the theatre for a living.