Nancy Opel is a trouper, yet, until now, her thirty year career in theatre missed one thing. Her credits include a who’s who and a what’s what of distinguished productions: Broadway’s Evita – at the ripe old age of 22, Sunday in the Park with George, Triumph of Love, Urinetown, and Memphis.
She has appeared in revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and Gypsy, and toured in the title role of The Drowsy Chaperone. She has also made Off-Broadway appearances in that cult musical and in plays such as David Ives’ All in the Timing.
Yet until now, she had never played Washington, D.C. She comes to town to take on one of the big momma’s of musical roles: none other than Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi in the new production of Hello, Dolly! at Ford’s Theatre.
A joint production of Signature Theatre and Ford’s Theatre, Hello, Dolly! is spruced up with new orchestrations, a 16-member cast, and DC theatre veteran Ed Gero playing the curmudgeonly Horace Vandergelder. Gero and company join Opel at Ford’s Theatre for her Washington theatre debut, which runs through May 18, 2013.
Sitting down with DC Theatre Scene, Nancy Opel shared her thoughts on being here in such as iconic role.
Jeff: Is Dolly Levi one of those characters you always wanted to play?
Nancy Opel: It was the first book musical I was ever in, in a community park out in Kansas, as a teenager. The entire experience of being in that ensemble of Hello, Dolly! was just magical. I loved all the music and I thought it was funny. But believe me, when you are 15 years old, you don’t look at the show and think about playing Dolly Levi [laughing]. You basically don’t even believe that you will live to be that old.
What convinced you to take this role?
When this came up, I will have to say honestly it was as much about doing the part of Dolly, which is going to be great fun. If you just look at what’s in the script and don’t think about it too much, I think you’d be okay.
But there are two other really significant factors. One was working with Eric Schaeffer. I was very much impressed by his career and all the things he’d done and I really wanted to get to know him. Another reason was being able to come to Washington, DC, since I have never played here in anything. It seems kind of impossible, being over 30 years in show business and not have done anything in Washington.
Once you get settled into the run, do you plan on seeing the sites around town?
Absolutely! It’s a beautiful time of year and I can’t wait to get out to really, really get a chance to explore everything that this city has to offer. I’m a big tourist wherever I go. And I’m also an amateur photographer, so I can’t wait to take pictures of the cherry blossoms coming up.
In working on the show, where did the process begin?
Everyone knows that Hello, Dolly! is based on a truly funny play, The Matchmaker, and it remains funny as a musical. And if you know the music, you know it’s brilliant. It’s absolutely one of the best musicals that’s ever been written. On our first day together in rehearsal, Eric had us read The Matchmaker. That was really, really helpful.
Here’s the thing I think Eric is very wisely doing with our production: he helped us get to the heart of The Matchmaker, through Hello, Dolly! I think that’s what can get lost in large-scale productions of Hello, Dolly! You sort of lose track of the heart.
It’s a pretty simple play. You could say that every one of the characters is disenchanted with their lives and they seek change. Horace Vandergelder, I mean, that’s why he’s looking for a wife. That’s why Dolly has her sights set on Horace. Irene Malloy wants a change, and so does Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby. They are all seeking an adventure. And by the end of the play, it’s so simple: they are transformed by love.
That reminds me of the speech Dolly has, right before she sings “Before the Parade Passes By.” It’s that wonderful speech she says to Ephraim, her late husband, about letting go and rejoining the human race.
Absolutely, it shows her transformation. When you have good writing – and I’m using my fingers in quotes – you don’t have to “act.” Being a woman of a certain age, the message is pretty direct; you don’t have to work at it so much, getting that change across.
A great score, a solid book based on a classic play – what else is a plus for this show?
As Eric likes to say, you’re not just going to see a bunch of merry villagers, standing around with no purpose. Our ensemble is heroic, because they are all super-super, triple threats. We don’t have a separate singing and dancing ensemble. They are always going and they are pretty amazing. We feel incredibly supported by them.
What do you hope audiences take away from seeing this Hello, Dolly!?
I hope they will get the whole family together and come see it. Hello, Dolly! is one of those shows, I hope young people come to see and they watch it and then say, ‘Yes, that’s for me. That’s what I want to do.’ Or they come and they say, ‘I’m going to go to the theatre for the rest of my life.’
That’s enough for me, that we spark love of theatre. And there’s nothing better to do that than a classic musical like this.
I’ve a few final questions for you, if you don’t mind.
When in doubt, where do you go for answers?
What book excited you recently?
I just finished “Water for Elephants.” I loved it.
Who could you not be without?
If you weren’t a performer, what would you be?
Perhaps a geologist, a gemologist or a costume designer.
I took geology in college. I’ve always been fascinated with gems and I’m a crafter. I used to have a subscription to Lapidary Journal Magazine. I’m a crafter – a knitter, sewer. I love textiles; I think it’s just a love of that stuff.
Anything else you want to share?
Ed Gero is the nicest man in the entire world.