The most popular stage Dollys each had deep singing voices that made them musical theater legends: Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman.
But the Broadway star currently playing matronly matchmaker Dolly Levi at the Wick Theatre and Costume Museum in Boca Raton has the deepest voice of all.
“I’m having a blast doing it,” says actor Lee Roy Reams, who through Dec. 6 directs — and stars — in composer-lyricist Jerry Herman’s indomitable hit, Hello, Dolly!
Reams, the first male actor to play Dolly in a sanctioned U.S. production, has a long association with both the show and the composer.
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The Tony-nominated 1980 42nd Street star played Cornelius Hackl opposite Channing in the 1978 Broadway revival, and also directed and choreographed her final turn as Dolly in the 1995 Broadway run. In 1998, Reams co-starred in An Evening With Jerry Herman, first at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, later on Broadway.
The “seeds were planted” for Reams to play Dolly in 2007, while he directed Randy Graff and Lewis J. Stadlen in a Hello, Dolly! production at the St. Louis Muny.
“When Randy went to the bathroom, Lewis turned to me and said, ‘When are you going to play this part?’” Reams recalls.
“I said, ‘Why, don’t you think I can?’ He said, ‘No, I know you can.’ And he said, ‘When you do it, I’ll play Horace.’ And I said, ‘I’ll hold you to it.’”
That’s exactly how it is at the Wick: Reams plays opposite Stadlen as Horace Vandergelder.
“I made an off-handed remark when Randy Graff went to the restroom and I didn't necessarily think it was going to come to fruition,” Stadlen laughs.
Stadlen, who made his Broadway debut as Groucho Marx opposite Shelley Winters in Minnie’s Boys (1970), calls Reams’ performance as Dolly “totally honest.”
“Never for a moment do I feel I’m performing with a man. I completely buy him as Dolly Levi,” Stadlen says. “When I said that I would do it, I bought the notion in an abstract way. When I started learning it, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m really going to be doing these scenes with a man.’ ... Lee Roy is very warm-hearted in the role. Very loveable.”
The final OK for Reams to play Dolly came earlier this year, while he performed at the Wick as French drag star Albin in Herman’s La Cage Aux Folles. During that run, Reams visited the legendary composer at his Miami Beach home and made his pitch.
“There was no reaction at all. It was just yes,” Reams says.
Dolly has been frequently sold-out since Reams’ production debuted Nov. 7. Although a man plays the leading lady, the show is never performed as camp.
“That’s the opposite of what Lee Roy is doing,” Stadlen says. “It’s just a very, very well-conceptualized performance.”
Reams, 73, says he would never mock Dolly. “I have respect for the people who wrote it and that’s the most important thing.”
Hello, Dolly!, based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, has a book by Michael Stewart and was originally directed and choreographed by Gower Champion. Its original Broadway run, from 1964 to 1970, won 10 Tony Awards and ran 2,844 performances. Barbra Streisand starred in the 1969 film directed by Gene Kelly.
Reams says “playing gender-switching roles is very interesting for an actor to explore. To break down the barriers, again, so we should have freedom to be able to express all the things we wish to do. We are creative people. It’s all been very positive and good.”
Following many performances, Reams takes off his wig, high heels and dress and likes to mingle with audience members.
“They’re all very pleasantly surprised and they were entertained. They said once the show started, you forget that it’s a man playing the part, that you become that character. You get done up in the costume and you assume the positioning and the clothes and the shoes to make you walk and act differently and move differently. So it becomes ingrained in the character. I know the show so well, but that was a plus for me.”
He hopes Dolly starts a trend, for himself and other actors.
“There are many parts I would like to play, both male and female, but since we’re talking about the female transition, I think roles that would transfer well to a man playing it would be Miss Hannigan in Annie, it would be a very interesting thing to have a man do it. Playing Rose in Gypsy. Playing the mother in Bye, Bye Birdie — it’s a wonderful part. It’s those parts, you see. It’s not so much wanting to dress up like a woman. You have to wear those shoes and all that stuff you have to wear underneath — it’s not so pleasant, let me tell you. But, the fact is to have your imagination to transfer into that, because they are good parts. That’s the primary thing, to play a good part.”
And what’s good for the goose is good for the gender. Reams would like to see women play men’s parts, too.
“For instance, if an actress wanted to play Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, what a great thing to see a woman dress up like a man,” he says. “Or any of those characters, it would be interesting to see a woman do that. I’m all for it.”
If you go
▪ What: ‘Hello, Dolly!’ starring Lee Roy Reams as Dolly Levi and Lewis J. Stadlen as Horace Vandergelder
▪ Where: Wick Theatre and Costume Museum, 7901 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton
▪ When: Through Dec. 6, 2015.
▪ Tickets: Prices range from $70 to $80. Visit www.thewick.org to purchase.