The thought of playing Dolly at first, for Vicki Lewis was met with great hesitation given who she is and she has perceived the role being done previously over the years. Her distant impressions included Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey, these bigger than life personalities.
“They were not me”, Vicki says. Vickie considers herself a little bit more “delicate” than the way these women come across. Vickie desires to bring her sexuality, her “womanness” into her performances. The only way to manipulate all those wonderful people into doing what I wanted them to do and in marrying me, in the instance of Horace, is to be charming and flirtatious, and coquettish to some degree. Vickie had never seen that done before. It was always big and brassy and funny and goofy. She had never seen the sexuality and/or the vulnerability in it. She was afraid that it was not the right fit for her.
When Marcia Milgrom-Dodge, the director, asked Vickie to do it, she informed her that they were going to follow the text. When you take the text as a blueprint, it’s all there. That made Vicki more comfortable. The fact that the vulnerability, the coquettishness, AND the funny would all come into play. Vicki could not find a way to humanize Dolly when she first thought of what Carol Channing or Pearl Bailey did.
Marcia was what turned Vicki around. They did Gypsy, How To Succeed, and Anything Goestogether. Vicki tells me that every time she has worked with Marcia, “something magical has happened.” The two of them working
together have an unspoken understanding of where they come from. When Vicki knew that Marcia was involved, she knew it was possible. “If it was possible at all, it was possible with her.” After the last time they had worked together, Vicki went and saw Marcia’s production of Cabaret, and told her that she was amazing and she would follow her anywhere. Two weeks later, Marcia called Vicki and asked her if she would go to Florida! Vicki said to Marcia that she didn’t mean that literally.
Vicki would jump at the chance to play Dolly again if the opportunity came her way. She fell in love with Dolly. She said it was harder to leave that role than almost any other she has played. She said she sobbed like a baby when she had to leave this behind. “That musical works.”
Recently Vicki came face to face with the original Dolly, Carol Channing, who is now 91, at an event in Palm Springs. Prior to this, she had had a “distant” relationship with Carol. Over the years, they have done a couple of benefits with each other but they didn’t really “connect” with each other. Her impression has always been, “There’s Carol Channing. How fabulous.” At the recent encounter, Carol wasn’t in the show, she was in the audience. They brought her on stage and she was very gracious, complimented all the entertainers on stage. She was very thrilled at being there. She is “just kinetic”. Vicki was too shy to take a picture with her. Luckily, Ann Hampton Callaway said, “Of course you have to have your picture taken with her! You just did Dolly!”
Gary Beachman: They had worked together in 1983 on a show in New York City called A Bundle of Nerves. Vickie says she laughed the entire time. They had a duet together that had been taught to them at the “eleventh hour”. It was called I Don’t Know How to Have Sex. They were wearing shower caps and medical gowns. They took one look at each other and started laughing at each other so much, in fact, that they had to leave the stage. They could not do the number. That’s her relationship with Gary. To be working with him all these years later was very meaningful for Vicki and one of the hardest parts of leaving this show behind.
Marcia’s contribution to THIS Dolly! was that it be about “forward thinking.” That these women were ahead of their time. All of the women in this production were very strong women. Marcia pushed the time period a little bit. Even in the costuming, the women were not “confined” by these big clothes. She really focused on the text forcing the story to be told. When something didn’t ring true, she stopped it. She only hires actors that she knows can deliver that kind of work. She finds the smartest, no drama, talented people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work. Vicki says that her age, she is not interested in dealing with drama and drama queens and people that don’t care to be there. She knows that when she signs on with Marcia, she knows what the tone is going to be. She is very excited to announce that they are going to be working together on a solo show about Betty Hutton for Vicki.
Vicki admits that she did not go back to read The Matchmaker in preparation for doing Hello, Dolly! She had every intention of doing so. Once she got down to Florida, she immediately jumped into learning this show.
Vickie feels that that one of her best moments in the show was the eating scene. As they asked around to the best method of making that scene work. Someone suggested eating tissue paper! You bake the tissue around a form and then it is molded into the shape of a dumpling and then you stuff them into the side of your cheek. The idea of doing that just sounded awful to Vicki. When Vicki and Marcia were discussing this, Vicki told her that cotton candy was one of her favorite foods from when she was a kid! That’s what they ended up using. She would look forward to it every night. She would be sort of “tired” by that point anyway. It was great to get “sugared up”. There was no faking it. It would melt in her mouth and she could eat a whole ton of it.
Another favorite moment for Vicki is Before The Parade Passes By. Marcia staged it beautifully. At the end of Act One, Dolly/Vicki was moving upstage towards an imaginary parade behind her looking towards the rest of her LIFE. It was done rather poignantly rather than barreling through it. It was very touching to Vicki.
Prior to doing this production, Vicki has never seen any other production of Dolly! So her impressions of Carol and Pearl’s Dolly are based on pictures and the rest of their body of work. She had seen those pictures with the big headdress and the “wack-a-doodle” expressions. Especially Pearl Bailey who looks rather “commanding” and big in photos. Vicki is tiny by comparison.
The production ran for three weeks. Opening night was terrifying for Vicki. She felt as if the entire production was on her shoulders. There was also the fear that no one would care. It took her one scene to get out of that. One of her earlier scenes is with Gary. She looked over at him and thought, “We are going to tell this story really well.” Also, Marcia had never led Vicki astray. Vicki was able to take a big breath and settle into the show. The biggest part for Vicki on opening night is taking her nerves so that she remains in her body, remains present, and that she can tell the story that needs to be told to her audience. Once she can latch on to that, she is ok.
Once the show opened, it pretty much froze in the general sense. However, each aspect of the production began to fill out with time. Vicki says it was a stunning performance. She has been in many productions, but with this one, she never felt there was a moment where audience members would turn to each other and say, “They don’t know what they are doing.”
Vicki’s overall favorite moment that occurred during this run was on her birthday. The entire company went out of their way to make that day special. She walked into her dressing room and it looked like a hoarder convention of birthday things. At the end of the show, Gary had a huge birthday cake brought out on stage that said “Happy Birthday, Dolly!” and the entire cast and audience sang “Happy Birthday” to her.
Another special moment was the night Jerry Herman attended the show. Vickie says he could not be more sweet and lovely. He was tender and honest, very complimentary, and disarming. Very lovely. Vicki doesn’t like to know when celebrities are in the audience. The night he attended, something happened on the reprise of Before The Parade Passes By. She sang, “I’m gonna raise the roof. I’m gonna carry on… I’m gonna carry on…I’m gonna carry on…
Before she could even make it back to her dressing room, Matt Loehr (Cornelius Hackl) had posted on her dressing room door, “Carry On!”. At the end of the show, it was announced that Jerry Herman was in the audience!
Vicki’s thoughts on Matt as Cornelius is that he is untouchable. She had seen Matt do The Producers at the Sacramento Music Circus. She felt that he could do anything. She was excited to hear he was going to be part of this production. She said she could watch him endlessly. She says he a genius, he is soulful, he is funny, disarming, one of a kind.
Vicki will carry on with her, after doing this show, that she “is enough”. Just to be this woman who is so strong and wonderful. She didn’t have to use gags and tricks to get that point across. She feels empowered by this. She now feels that she is smart enough, interesting enough, talented enough to be able to carry one of these parts along. In her career, thus far, she has been used to being “second banana”.
There wasn’t a lot of “downtime”. Since she was in Florida, everyone decided to visit her. So, she was entertaining a lot. She also LOVED this company. There was a lot of interplay with this cast offstage as well as on.
Closing night, Vicki could not get through many of the songs without crying. She finally pulls herself together and during the title number, the entire chorus was sobbing. As she was coming down the stairs, it was devastating to think about leaving this company. They were that close. That closing night, for Vicki, was trying not to ruin the show by crying too much during her songs.
Vicki tells me that over the past five years of her life, she has never been happier than what she is right now. She’s had a lot of tough life lessons. She’s done a lot of film and television and lost her drive. She took a “time out” and reassessed her dreams. Since theater is what she most loves, that is what she is now pursuing. Her husband and her are now seeking a place in New York!
Carry on, Vicki Lewis!
(Photos: Courtesy of Vicki Lewis and Maltz Jupiter Theater)