Muse Machine’s “Hello, Dolly” at Victoria Theatre

Muse Machine cast of “Hello, Dolly”  with Sarah LiBrandi (center) as Dolly. Photo: Daniel Rader

By Dr. Jill Summerville

Hello, Dolly is an American musical that epitomizes the best of America itself. It’s irreverent without being shallow, exuberant without being bombastic, and irresistible without being aloof. It’s startling, then, that the quintessential American musical wasn’t always an American musical. Hello, Dolly is based on “The Merchant of Yonkers,” the 1938 play of another quintessential American voice, Thornton Wilder. In 1964, Wilder’s play was adapted as a musical, with Carol Channing in the title role of the ambitious Dolly Levi, who agrees to help wealthy merchant, Horace Vandergelder, find a wife, even though she’s determined to charm him herself.

Certainly, no audience member can resist Dolly Levi. According to Vincent Canby’s 1995 theatre review in The New York Times, Dolly is so winning that even the woman who originated the role in the musical is devoted to her; Channing played Dolly from 1964 through 1995. If Hello, Dolly is a natural choice for a theatre’s season because of its appeal—an appeal inextricably linked with Channing’s smoky voice and natural charisma—it’s a formidable choice for precisely the same reason.

However, Muse Machine, which will be performing Hello, Dolly in the Victoria Theatre from Thursday, Jan. 11 through Sunday, Jan. 14, never refuses a creative challenge. Founded by Suzy Bassani, Jean Woodhull, and Franny Sullivan in 1982, the company’s mission is to connect young theatre makers with their muses. The company’s name contains both its inspiration and its mission; an homage to the nine Muses of Greek mythology—representing epic poetry, history, love, poetry, tragedy, music, sacred poetry, and the mimetic art (better known to contemporary audiences as the theatre), dancing and choral singing, comedy, and astronomy, respectively—it is also a promise to teach young people how to find the discipline that allows them to consistently call upon their own muses. Eventually, the company promises, the ability to draw and deliver inspiration will become as reliable as a machine. According to Hello, Dolly director, Joe Deer, Muse Machine’s season is always comprised of “first tier material [that allows] an opportunity for students to grow.”

Hello, Dolly offers both the performers and the audience members significant opportunities for growth, not least because, while the musical itself is beloved, the musical style is no longer readily familiar. The choreography is challenging. Musical numbers that require vocal discipline and a full orchestra may be unexpected for a contemporary audience. After all, the most well known contemporary musical (Do I really need to name it?) features prominent rap battles. Musical Director Sean Michael Flowers says perhaps the greatest surprise for audiences will be, not the familiarity of the musical style, but the immediacy of the emotions it evokes. Says Flowers, “[Composer and lyricist] Jerry Herman leaves audiences with tears in their eyes when they don’t even know why.” Sara Librandi, who has worked with Muse Machine for three years and plays Dolly in this production, says Dolly’s consistent ability to find joy, is a talent audiences can take outside of the theatre. “So many people struggle to find joy in their lives. The challenge of finding that joy [is] a wonderful opportunity.”

The ability to find joy is crucial in contemporary America. According to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) affects 16.1 million American adults, and it’s the leading cause of disability in Americans ranging from ages 15 to 44. Given the nation’s current economic, sociopolitical, and sociocultural uncertainties, it’s important that a company like Muse Machine reminds us to acknowledge our profoundest feelings, and then act on them. Flowers says, “There’s always the opportunity to keep loving and doing [in the world], and, if we don’t, the opportunity will pass us by.”

Of course, the youth in Muse Machine act onstage, but they are also learning how they want to act in the world, and adult audience members are learning with them. Performing both in schools and in more traditional theatrical settings, Muse Machine shows audiences that, while self-discovery is never a simple process, it can be an enjoyable one. Hello, Dolly choreographer, Lula Elzy, regularly relishes the challenge of getting young people in step with one another, both literally and figuratively. Elzy says the thrill of seeing the unmistakable moment when someone has found his or her place is what makes audiences keep returning to Muse Machine. A Muse Machine show is a spectacle you won’t see anywhere else, Elzy promises. “There’s a smile on your face when the curtain goes up, and it’s still there when the curtain comes down.”

Muse Machine performs Hello, Dolly at the Victoria Theatre from Thursday, Jan. 11 through Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018. To purchase tickets, or to find out how to best assist the company, visit

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