Matt Loehr, currently appearing as Cornelius in the Northshore Music Theater production, is no stranger to Hello, Dolly! This is his third Dolly within the last two years! He first appeared in the chorus in 1997, when he was nineteen, with the great Gretchen Wyler in the title role. It was Gretchen’s last stage appearance. This was at St. Louis’ famed MUNY theater performing before a nightly audience of 12,000-the largest outdoor theater in America. Matt has seen the film but has never seen any other production of Dolly other than those he has appeared in. He was in the ensemble and it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of his life. Certainly at that point in his life but it is also a huge fond memory for him. This was, in his mind, what a true star was. Such presence every moment in the rehearsal studio. She was so on it. When she would come down those impressive stairs on this massive stage, Matt would get chills every night. He felt like he was in the presence of royalty, which he was. He was in the presence of Broadway royalty. He says she was the most gracious star. She loved her boys. There was such camaraderie among them. She danced beautifully. He says it still warms his heart thinking about her. That was his first entry into the live Dolly world. That production was directed by Paul Blake. Lee Roy Reams had been approached to direct but was not available. Randy Slovocek restaged Gower Champion’s choreography. Randy went out to be a part of the 1995 revival and is a prominent fixture of Dori Berenstein’s award winning and critically documentary Carol Channing: Larger Than Life.
Move ahead to 2011. By this time, Matt was a little more seasoned, was living in North Carolina with his partner and auditions for North Carolina’s production starring Cybill Shepherd. He gets cast as Cornelius Hackl! Four days before opening, Cybill injures herself at her residence and has to pull out of the production. Enter Jacqueline Piro Donovan ( Jackie Piro, the Hero,who saves the day in true star fashion. (I will be interviewing Jacqueline next week.)
Earlier this year, Matt once again played Cornelius at Maltz Jupiter Theater (Read interviews with Gary Beach/Horace, Vicki Lewis/Dolly, and Marcia Milgrom-Dodge). As stated above, Matt is once again playing Cornelius at Northshore…again with Gary Beach as Cornelius AND with Jacqueline Piro Donavan…who is a replacement for an injured Lorna Luft!
Matt and I sat down to talk yesterday on one of his few days off to discuss all things Dolly!
Matt had worked with Casey Hushion, artistic director of North Carolina Theater. They had done several shows together. They had worked on Minsky’s at the Ahmanson Theatre. They had also done the ELF workshop and on Broadway. He says they have none each other for a few years now and that she is one of the greatest people on the planet and so smart.
Matt and his partner had moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, his new home base. His partner is the director of the stage management department of the prestigious North Carolina School of the Arts, just finishing his second year. They had previously lived in New Jersey. As they were moving down, Casey approached Matt about doing Dolly at North Carolina Theater. He was already contracted to do Crazy For You at the Maltz. This worked out perfectly, Dollywould be starting a week later. So he went on to do Dolly in Raleigh, which is two hours from his new home. This was his foray into the North Carolina arts scene. At North Carolina Theater, it is a ten day rehearsal process with a ten day run. On the fourth day, star Cybill Shepherd is in a wheel chair because of a fall outside her complex. Everyone was tense with no one saying what was going to happen. They were supposed to do an invited run through in two days and no one knew what was going to happen. Then all of a sudden Jackie Piro shows up the next day! She had never played Dolly before. She had done Irene Molloy years prior in Pittsburgh. She was fearless and just went for it. Matt says he still does not know how she pulled that off. She has NO fear! As you know, Dolly is the anchor. She is constantly driving that ship. Making things happen. Matt says he was in awe of how she stepped into that company and that show and how she took command of it. When he heard that she would be coming into the Northshore production to replace an injured Lorna Luft, he sent her an email prior. This company has the luxury of a two week rehearsal period. He asked her what she was going to do with all that time. She responded by saying” maybe learn the lines in specific detail.” He says it is now to watch her settled into the role and such a commanding Dolly.
Matt’s Thoughts on Gary Beach as Horace Vandergelder
“Do you have three days?” He is truly Matt’s idol. He has known him for twelve years. They started The Producers together. Matt says watching him in the rehearsal process and seeing his commitment to the work is akin to getting a master class every day. It is great reconnecting with him again, and in a role where he doesn’t wear a dress…although he WOULD make a great Dolly! “It is fun to see him play such a loveable curmudgeon.” That is the perfect fit for Vandergelder. You can’t dislike him and yet you don’t instantly fall in love with him. He is a bit of a miserly grump. Beach has the perfect blend of the humor and the seriousness of the character. It becomes utterly delightful. Matt says watching him in the dinner scene, he is getting so furious with Dolly. She won’t let him get a word in edgewise. He keeps shouting out interjections such as “I don’t want to be charming!” “Only Gary Beach could make every single line absolutely hysterical but absolutely real.” THAT is why Matt idolizes Gary. He is truly one of the funniest people he has ever seen on stage. As theatrical as his performances are, they are grounded in a very real sense. It’s always coming out of something very real. He is ALWAYS in the moment and the definition of inspiration.
Maltz Jupiter Theater Production of Hello, Dolly!
“I LOVED IT!” To do a completely different version from what Matt had done at North Carolina Theater was exciting. Marcia Milgrom-Dodge, who he so loved working with and hopes to again, has such strong visions for her productions. She never wants to do what has already been done. She had very strong ideas on how Cornelius should be played. The minute he makes this decision to go out and seek adventure and kiss a girl, for example. This is a thirty-three year old man who has never kissed a girl in 1899. That would equate to someone who would be in their fifties now. There is a lot of pent up energy there! Once he makes that decision, it is “fly by the seat of your pants!” He has no baggage. The freedom of that elevated the humor and the physicality of all that was great for Matt. Everything was happening and it was happening in such a big way because Cornelius is like a baby. Everywhere he steps is brand new. He is nervous and excited. “He sort of vomits his words out.” Once he grows and gets to the court room scene, it is one of the most blessed speeches ever written. He loves It Only Takes A Moment into this speech. This is such a tremendous payoff because he has lived and he knows what love is. He has settled into his essence. This is such a great moment for any actor who has taken this journey, who gets to make this arc. Marcia really elevated that for Matt.
Matt tells me that each of his three directors have had their own individual vision of how Cornelius should be played: the relationship between Cornelius and Barnaby and the relationship between Cornelius and Mrs. Molloy. He has also had a different Irene Molloy and Barnaby each time. He has loved them all because they all have brought their own stamp to their roles and they ALL work which is a true testament to how solid this show is.
Charles Repole, director Northshore, wanted Cornelius to be a tad more cautious in how he steps into this world, not overly methodical. A gentler approach. He thinks this works perfectly opposite his current Barnaby and Mrs. Molloy. Although these are two extremely different approaches, he feels the payoff is the same. He feels that courtroom scene is like taking the biggest exhale ever every time he does it. He could do it over and over and getting to do it in front of an audience is thrilling. He had never experienced the thrill of being able to talk directly to the audience before. The first time he did it in North Carolina, he found that he really loved that. He also feels that it has helped him to grow as a performer. You have to trust who you are as that character. Matt is a very physical person. He comes from a very strong dance background. Being able to speak directly with the audience has been a real eye opener. That is a selfish thing he will carry with him throughout his career. The other is having had, thus far, to play opposite three incredible Dollys. Gretchen was the first star he had ever appeared with on stage and he will never forget that.
Each of these directors capitalized on the strongest abilities of their casts. The best example would probably be the hat shop scene and the Motherhood March. There is so much movement and comedic timing and each one was very different. Each capitalized on Matt’s strongest points and brought those forth. In the Dancing number, Marcia and Matt created a step together that she is utilizing once again in her restaging of Music Man at Glimmerglass Opera, a very Ray Bolgerish move, the legs are moving, the hips are moving. It got a huge response in Florida. Very silly and fun and oddly difficult. Matt said he was so tired after that moment. He said he was moving very much like the scarecrow. “All great directors work with the actors they have in front of them utilizing their best. Charlie, Casey, and Marcia are perfect examples of this. They see what their actors can do and mold everything around that. They are all very collaborative”
Matt has been a fan of Vicki Lewis ever since he saw her on The Tonys doing her number from Damn Yankees. He remembers saying, “Who is this powerhouse?” To see how she brought the most unique, vivacious, crafty, sensuous Dolly to life and on top of that, to get to know her as a person. “One of the funniest, finest persons on the planet.” He now spends some afternoons thinking, “What would be a good show for Vicki to do?” Something that he could possibly co-star in, as well!
And, now, getting to do it with Jackie again! Both Vicki and Jackie are musical comedy forces but their Dollys couldn’t be more different. Their sensibilities are so different but they both work. Jackie has a drive about her, she just lights up the stage with her smile and her presence. He loves doing Dancing with her every night.
He thinks Christine Ebersol and Beth Level would also make great Dollys.
There are so many moments that stand out for Matt. However that chord of “Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers…”is musical theater at its greatest, according to Matt. On each of his opening nights, that moment solidifies that “we are on board”. His journey begins. “It is that brilliance that Jerry Herman wrote that goes right into ‘Sunday Clothes’ , I get goose bumps every time.” This is his first Jerry Herman show and he knows why Jerry has reached the iconic stage. “He writes incredibly perfect music for a show.” Jerry saw the show at the Maltz. It was a thrill for Matt to meet him. He looks incredible and was pleased with the production. “He is a musical theater genius.”
Matt believes that he brings a lot of sincerity and humor to Cornelius. Also, his physicality, his strengths as a dancer. He brings a lot of humor about Cornelius’ learning how to dance because Matt knows his body so well. He knows how to create that “heightened awkwardness in learning”. That’s something as opposed to someone who is not a dancer playing the same scene. Matt also considers himself a pretty open vulnerable man. That’s what he loves about Cornelius, as well. Slightly goofy. All of those things need to be embraced as well. THAT’s what Matt brings to the table. Why Matt loves live theater as opposed to filmed media, although he has not pursued the later, is because he loves being in the moment and letting things unfold as they do. He is always pursuing perfection with it. Because it is live, you also get to let that part go at the same time. When you know those words so well, just respond with what you are given. Each audience is different and that plays into it, as well. Recently, he found a funny vocal-ism when he was explaining to Irene why they couldn’t go to the Harmonia Gardens. Nonsense came out of his mouth which got a laugh. He thought, “Well, that is kind of funny”. It just developed out of the moment. He tries to not make it exactly the same every night but within the basic structure. He doesn’t change moves or anything along those lines.
North Carolina and Maltz Jupiter Theaters are both proscenium theaters. Northshore is in the round. Therefore, there are also logistical differences. At both North Carolina and Maltz, the quartet (Cornelius, Barnaby, Irene, and Minnie) are hidden behind a curtain. To amuse themselves and Dolly, when she peeks in as she’s “just getting acquainted”, they would resort to anything just for fun. One night, for example, they were all wearing Groucho Marx glasses. Of course, the audience never sees this! “Very unprofessional but keeps the energy flowing”. One time they pretended to be playing instruments. Read my chapter on Vicki going up on her lyrics! “I’m gonna carry on. I’m gonna get a trombone.” They grabbed a trombone and a carry on bag! Vicki, being solid, was able to just continue with the scene. He does love those moments.
Doing Dolly, Matt has learned about comedy and sincerity. Not getting in the way of certain comedic moments such as the structure of the hat shop scene. It is a farce with a lot of physical comedy. Everyone has to trust each other and make every move and line happen as it is staged. Prior to Dolly, Matt had never done a scene as intricate as that one. The other moment, as discussed, is the growth and arc of the character, such as the courtroom scene.
Matt’s worst experience as Cornelius, he is experiencing NOW! Because they are theater in the round, the wardrobe closet that Cornelius usually hides in in the hat shop scene, usually standing up, has been replaced with a trunk here. He is in a tight little trunk for what feels like five hours….in full darkness…in a full suit…and it is really, really hot! He does not look forward to that every night. He does have a little mini fan to keep his air going and they’ve cut out a few air holes. Thank God, he is not claustrophobic but he empathizes with those that are.
The biggest change that Matt has seen in the industry since doing Dolly with Gretchen Wyler in 1997 is the competition. Thousands of television channels and video games and Netflix and movies on demand. People don’t go out as much as they used to. The MUNY is a 12,000 seat outdoor amphitheater. There would be thousands night after night. The Maltz also is doing great due to their size. It is getting harder to get people to go to the theater. Gary Beach and Matt have had discussions on this. Theatre USED to be a part of people’s culture. The competition has caused that to shift for many, whether it be financial or otherwise. They just don’t go out as much and it is tougher to get people into those seats.
When Matt is not on the boards, he trains daily. He tap dances in his garage. He vocalizes. He reads and works on new material. He studies up on songs from roles he hopes to play. The longer he is in this business, one thing is constant: You have to keep your maintenance up. If you don’t act or sing for stretches of time, you will have a harder time getting back into it. He also loves teaching dance and audition technique to younger artists. He loves to teach and considers himself lucky that he grew up with really great teachers and arts programs. He feels that it is really important to pass on your knowledge. Whenever he gets the opportunity, he does that as well.