Review: Buoyant ‘Matchmaker’ on stage at People’s Light

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

By Margie Royal

I have had the good fortune of seeing several wonderful productions of “Hello, Dolly” performed onstage, but have never seen “The Matchmaker” — the play that inspired the musical. So when People’s Light and Theatre announced they were staging Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker”, I circled the date of the opening weekend on my calender and looked forward to seeing the show. I am happy to say I was delighted with People’s Light and Theatre Company’s inventive, buoyant and engaging production, directed by Abigail Adams.
If like me, you are a big fan of the musical, “Hello, Dolly!”, you’ll be pleased to hear that the musical was very faithful to the play.

“The Matchmaker” introduces wealthy widower Horace Vandergelder (wonderfully played by Graham Smith). Horace owns a general store in Yonkers, NY. He’s decided to marry and has enlisted widow Dolly Levi (Kathryn Petersen) to help him find a wife. As the play opens, he is about to travel to New York City to meet a prospective match, Mrs. Molloy (Teri Lamm), who runs a hat shop, and employs a shy assistant, Minnie Fay (Tabitha Allen).

As he prepares to leave, Horace entrusts the care of his store to chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Brandon Meeks) and assistant clerk Barnaby Tucker (Christopher R. Brown) and also forbids his niece, Ermengarde (Mina Kawahara), to marry her true love, a successful artist named Ambrose Kemper (James Ijames).
“The Matchmaker” plot also involves a waiter named Rudolf (Peter DeLaurier), Miss Flora van Huysen (Melanye Finister), Cabman (Mark Lazar), barber Joe Scanlon (Stephen Novelli), Malachi Stack (Pete Pryor) and housekeeper Gertrude (Marcia Saunders).

Thornton Wilder’s best known work is probably “Our Town”. It’s often taught in schools and is frequently staged; so if you’ve seen it, you’re familiar with the direct address technique he used in that play. Here, in the romantic farce of “The Matchmaker” it’s also intriguingly and sparingly employed — and includes a monologue by Malachi Stack which Pete Pryor deftly delivers. It’s in these monologues that Wilder subtly underscores the big theme of the play –an individual’s right to pursue happiness.

Kathryn Petersen plays Dolly Levi with an amused archness in “The Matchmaker” at People’s Light. Photo by Mark Garvin

PLTC’s “The Matchmaker” cast consists of actors at the top of their craft. They all turn in terrific performances. Kathryn Petersen plays Dolly Levi with an amused archness and intelligence. Teri Lamm creates a restless Mrs. Molloy who longs for adventure and finds it –and a romance with a sweet natured Cornelius Hackl nicely played by Brandon Meeks. As Barnaby Tucker, Christopher R. Brown puts his comedic skills to good use and had the opening night audience laughing at his character’s earnest seriousness and wonderstruck expressions. As meek Minnie Fay, Tabitha Allen also turns in a fine performance, as do Mina Kawahara as weepy Ermengarde and James Ijames as Ambrose.
Director Adams adds musicans Liz Filios and Melanie Hsu to the cast and has them share the stage with the performers and provide the music and sound effects as needed during the performance. The musicians – and multi-talented cast are featured in a musical pre-curtain showcase of songs popular in America during the late 1880s. You’ll see –and hear –songs such as the ballad “Hard Times” and the lovely Shaker spiritual “Tis a Gift to be Simple” . These songs were born out of America’s melting-pot culture. For me, it was a gentle reminder that we are all a nation of immigrants, and a reminder that music has a healing power which can unite us, despite our differences. Arrive to the theatre a half-hour early if you want to catch the pre-show concert.
Tony Straiges’ imaginative set design adorns the walls with images of 1880s Americana and adds set pieces as needed for the many scene locations. Dennis Parichy’s lighting design features a lot of  joyous pinks and oranges — perfect colors for a warm-hearted romantic comedy. Marla Jurglanis’ period costumes are also first rate.
“The Matchmakers” continues through March 12. If you need a dose of cheer, treat yourself and go see this show!
If you go: Special performances include informal Q&As after Thursday evening performances on Feb. 23 and March 2 and 9. Tappan Wilder, Thornton Wilder’s nephew and literary executor of the Wilder estate, will be the guest on March 2. Prior to the Wednesday 7:30pm performances, dramaturg Gina Pisasale hosts musician, sound designer, and composer Liz Filios to get the inside scoop about the rehearsal and production process, design choices, and the world of the play. The program begins at 6 p.m. in The Farmhouse Bistro on Fe. 22 and March 8. Cost of $15 includes light fare. Call the Box Office at 610-644-3500 to purchase.
For tickets, call 610-644-3500 or visit peopleslight.org.
People’s Light Leonard C. Haas Stage is at 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA