For Lin Yutang, a widely popular Chinese writer in English in the mid-twentieth century, the scamp was an ideal: “My faith in human dignity consists in the belief that man is the greatest scamp on earth . . . the scamp is the most glorious type of human being . . .”
For Yutang, the scamp is an unpredictable, creative individual who skirts both sides of morality in utter playfulness and does not take life overly serious.
Such a scamp we meet in the musical “Hello, Dolly!” in the person of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widow in fin de siècle New York City who plays the role of matchmaker – ultimately for herself to the prosperous merchant Horace Vandergelder.
In addition to her role as matchmaker, she deals out business cards for dubious side professions such as dance instructor, mandolin artist and even legal consultant.
Yet her questionable ventures also serve to show her to be true to Dr. Lin’s “scamp ideal.” They show a woman of great wisdom, especially when it comes to judging correctly the role of money in human affairs: “The difference between a little money and no money at all is enormous and can shatter the world! And the difference between a bit of money and an enormous amount of money is very slight, and that can shatter the world, too. It’s all in how you use it.
“As my late husband, Ephram Levi, used to say, money – pardon the expression – is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow!”
Dolly is determined “to marry Horace Vandergelder and send his money out into the world.” Her seemingly shallow goals are perhaps a vehicle to achieve a higher morality and contribute positively to the world.
Such celebrated performers have played the flamboyant role of Dolly as Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand (the last in the Hollywood film version). In the 2018-2019 U.S. tour which includes the current performances at the Kennedy Center, the part is brought to life by Betty Buckley.
A Broadway star, Buckley is also known in popular culture through her role as Carrie’s gym teacher in the Stephen King-based film “Carrie” and as the step-mother on TV’s comedy-drama “Eight is Enough.”
Both were filmed back in the 1970s, but the actress has lost none of her vitality, belting out the title song “Hello, Dolly!” with vigor and dancing in full chorus line.
Buckley embodies the “scamp” side of the role to utter audience delight; in one particularly memorable scene, she eats a multi-course meal slowly and with great relish as all the other characters wait for her to weigh in on a critical legal case resulting from earlier antics in the play.
The other performers in this lavish Broadway-style production deserve high praise as well. Lewis J. Stadlen is an excellent Horace Vandergelder, sometimes acting as a straight man and other times as a comic figure. Stalden always performs with a voice intonation somewhat suggestive of the legendary comedian Groucho Marx.
Mr. Vandergelder’s put-upon store clerks are Cornelius Hackl (Nic Rouleau) and Barnaby Tucker (Sean Burns), who unbeknownst to Vandergelder make their way from Yonkers to New York City and pose as wealthy men in order to impress hat shop owner Irene Molloy (Analisa Leaming) and her assistant Minnie Fay (Kristen Hahn).
A particularly fun scene centers around the song “Elegance,” sung and performed by all four of these players. In it, the “two broke guys” convince the ladies that walking is a vastly more elegant means of transportation than paying money for something motorized. Leaming also provides a beautiful voice in her charming song “Ribbons Down My Back,” sung as she prepares to meet Horace but is about to fall for Cornelius. Another humorous scene occurs when Horace enters the hat shop and Cornelius and Barnaby, already there, must hide under tables and closets. The comic timing of the actors is excellent.
“Hello, Dolly!” is uproariously funny, and yet there are sometimes more serious messages here and there, too, such as when Dolly says that “we’re all fools and we’re all in danger of destroying the world in our folly.” Perhaps we could save it by being wise scamps like Dolly Gallagher Levi. This excellent and vastly entertaining production can be seen at the Kennedy Center through July 7, after which – riffing off the title song – “Dolly will go away again.”