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Thursday, June 17, 2004 07:57 pm

Little theatre production pairs highly regarded stage veterans

The Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan launches its new season with a whopping good show, the ageless Hello, Dolly!, featuring two lead performances that could not be better Ñ Anna McNeely in the title role and Michael Haws as Horace Vandergelder Ñ and an ensemble of singers and dancers that literally lifts the show time and time again with creative and exhilarating choreography by Chrissy Wright. ItÕs fitting that McNeely and Haws are finally performing together on the Sullivan stage. Haws, a professional actor living in Chicago, has become a favorite at Sullivan over the past few years. His performances in The Odd Couple, Man of La Mancha, and The Lion in Winter are just a few examples of this actorÕs talent and versatility. ThereÕs also something right about McNeelyÕs taking on the legendary role of Dolly Levi on the Sullivan stage. Originally from Tower Hill, McNeely apprenticed at the Little Theatre in the 1970s before landing a role in a tour of Camelot starring Rock Hudson. The next summer, she toured in The Music Man, which starred Tony Randall. She then got work at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, which led to a plum role in a revival of the George M. Cohan musical Little Johnny Jones starring Donny Osmond. That show, which took McNeely to Broadway, closed quickly, but it was the last time she performed in a show that didnÕt quite succeed. Soon she landed a role in the original Broadway cast of Cats (playing Jennyanydots), where she stayed for six-and-a-half years. After Cats, McNeely spent the next three years playing Electra in the Broadway production of Gypsy, which starred Tyne Daly. McNeely repeated her role when the show was adapted for television in a production starring Bette Midler. To top off her rŽsumŽ, she spent nine years with the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast. Asked what it is about long runs that attracts her, McNeely says, ÒI can sniff Õem out, and I like the steadiness and security that come with it, being a Midwest girl myself. From working in Cats all those years, I was able to buy a house in upstate New York.Ó Playing Dolly Levi, one of a handful of great roles for women in the American musical-theater canon, is demanding. ÒItÕs also a comedienneÕs dream,Ó McNeely says. ÒItÕs so well written, and I have tried to add a little more warmth to Dolly as well, to show thereÕs a real reason why she marries Horace in the end Ñ and itÕs not because of his money!Ó This is what makes McNeelyÕs Dolly stand out. Not only is she a consummate performer, a bright and funny comedienne, but she also makes this role much more real than is often seen. So when Dolly reminisces about the old days in New York and the love she felt for her late husband, we feel it along with her. This makes her rendition of ÒBefore the Parade Passes ByÓ not only a great Act One finish but a highly emotional anthem as well. M. Seth Reines is a director who can take a fresh look at the old tried-and-true musicals and show us that thereÕs a lot more to them than we might think. His fast-paced production gives us more than a glimpse of the Thornton Wilder play The Matchmaker, on which Hello, Dolly! is based. The supporting cast is first-rate, especially Tori Hicks as Irene Molloy, Edward Schnecker as Cornelius, Bryan Lefeber as Barnaby, Natalie Wisdom as Minnie Fay, Cortney Wolfson as Ermengarde, Cheryl Ann Sanders as Ernestina, and SpringfieldÕs own Anthony Majewski as Ambrose Kemper. The scenic design by Bernadette Brennan shows her to be a master at creating beautiful set pieces that work on the tiny Sullivan stage. John Brian McCarthyÕs lighting is expert, and Kathryn WagnerÕs period costumes add to the joy of the occasion. Kevin Francis FinnÕs five musicians give the score a rich, full sound. The Little Theatre on the Square is the only professional Equity theater between Chicago and St. Louis.

Hello, Dolly! runs through June 27. Call 888-261-9675 for tickets and information.

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