Playhouse 395's 'Hello Dolly' a must-see

It's strange to pull up to a high school auditorium (Bishop's only performing arts space) to see a play performed by adults.

In fact, I immediately remembered my high school’s theater club slogan, “Torrey Pines Theater: We Need One.” Rumor was the space we used was the former auto shop classroom. Proving mostly to the student artists’ who worked in there that great art can be achieved in the oddest of places. 

Playhouse 395 in Bishop is not an actual theatre space. Since re-establishing in 2006, members of the group have produced several professional and children’s productions annually, as well as held classes in the space they own, the Performing Arts Studio & Box Office on West Line St., Bishop. Despite lacking a real theater, they proudly perform with an abundance of presence at the real center of town, Bishop Union High School theatre. 

Upon entering any theater before a play, I have a tendency to look at the stage lights. Lighting design for the stage is one of those weird things I love-because-I-can’t-do, since light is the most tedious work in theater when done right. 

However in the BHS theater I can’t help but stare at every corner of the space, and wonder when the theatre was built. The beautiful set pieces and fresh paint prove it’s a space that’s currently loved. The moldings, and architecture show it’s a place that’s been loved for a very long time.  

Before the invited-guest dress rehearsal began, Hello Dolly’s director Martha Reynolds entered the stage in a sapphire blue power-suit. Fitting for the female director of a musical containing one of the most chauvinistic songs ever written (but don’t worry, the ladies get their comeback). 

Reynolds spoke to the audience like they were old friends. And most of them are. Many of the audience members that night—and on most nights—are family members, friends, neighbors and theater patrons who have been coming back to see every show Playhouse offers. The intimacy between the audience and director is obvious—and not just when Reynolds forgot to introduce herself—but also in the way both parties are excitedly ready to see how everyone’s hard work and creativity will finally come together. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the musical Hello Dolly (remember attending that one musical in high school? Or at least heard Louis Armstrong’s version of the title song?), this turn-of-the-20th-century show is about Dolly Levi, a New York matchmaker, who seems challenged trying to actually set matches, but more than qualified in teaching anyone to dance. Just check her business cards. 

Dolly’s current client is wife-seeking Horace Vandergelder. He’s a half-a-millionaire, so he’s kind of a big deal. Despite being the kind of guy Susan B. Anthony would’ve slapped in the face (if she did that sort of thing), this is the man Dolly has set her sights on. 

Although Dolly has previously promised to set Horace up with hat shop owner Irene Malloy, both ladies have other plans, giving Horace a run for his money. Irene wants to marry, but is not in love with him. 

She and her assistant Minnie Fay are more excited by Horace’s nervous shop employees Cornelius and Barnaby, who have decided to go to New York City to have a good meal, spend all their money, almost get arrested, and (hopefully) kiss a girl. 

Plot line B involves a young artist Ambrose Kemper who’s madly in love with Horace’s niece Ermangarde. Horace has refused Ambrose permission to marry, considering his profession unworthy of her hand. Of course, Dolly is up for solving this challenge as well.

The title role stars Playhouse veteran Karen Keehn. She has served on the board of directors for Playhouse since the company’s first run in the 1980s—back when they had a theater space—and along with Reynolds, is the only returning current member of the board. Keehn has also acted in almost every Playhouse production, as well as being an integral player in producing the children’s shows. 

Keehn also shines with incredible talent and confidence. It’s not just the giant purple hat that will draw the audience’s eyes towards her; she’s an incredible singer with fabulous stage presence.

Both John Millerburg and John Louth play the role of Horace Vandergelder. Jesse Steele is taking on the role of Ambrose, after last minute fill in, but he plays it as if he’s been rehearsing with the rest of the troupe for the last three months. 

Rose Masters is a poised and coy Irene Malloy. Along with Abby Rossi’s enchanting Minnie Fay, Masters gives flirtation a sophisticated touch, like most of us imagine it was like in the early 1900s. 

Cornelius and Barnaby are played with superb comic timing by Brandon Parker and Ron Valenzuela respectively. Both men come alive when they begin singing the classic “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.” 

Elaborate set pieces and beautifully designed costumes compliment the fantastic lighting and sound design. Bishop has extraordinarily talented members of the community who are willing to fit in time after family and work to bring us the performing arts.

A theater company doesn’t just start out making a musical like Playhouse 395’s Hello Dolly. This is a production full of pyrotechnics, multiple complex dance numbers and a very talented live orchestra led by David Pratt. 

It takes years of trials to make a show where the lead actors confidently shine their “triple threat” talent, and the crew fearlessly allows their visions to come to life. Most say this is Playhouse’s best production yet. 

The future most definitely holds shows of the same caliber, if not greater. 

Hello Dolly is written by Michael Stewart with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Playhouse 395’s production is running March 23, 24, 30 and 31 at 7 p.m. at the Bishop High School theater, 301 N Fowler St, Bishop. The show runs approximately 3 hours, including an intermission.