Since Carol Channing starred in the 1964 Broadway premiere of Jerry Herman's perennially popular musical, a multitude of worldwide Dollys have made that legendary descent down the steps into the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant to launch into the rousing title song. During the Broadway run alone, such luminaries as Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Ethel Merman, and Pearl Bailey succeeded Channing, and Barbra Streisand headed the 1969 film adaptation. These are huge shoes to fill. The finest of many joyous surprises in Downey Civic Light Opera's revisit of the vintage tuner is the chutzpah that Ann Peck McBride brings to the role of the meddlesome yet lovable marriage broker, the widowed Dolly Levi. Though she's an established pro, McBride's take-charge portrayal crackles with so much charm and élan, it feels like a breakthrough performance.
Backing up her stellar lead turn are a superbly simpatico ensemble, colorful cotton-candy design elements, Eddy Clement's effervescent music direction, and Jon Engstrom's exuberant choreography, providing a fresh and vibrant take on this golden-age classic. Michael Stewart's book preserves the wit and style of its illustrious source material, Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, while seamlessly melding it with the sprightly conventions of musical comedy. Herman's buoyant score, written early in his career, remains one of his best. Providing a perfect foil for the manipulative heroine, Ed Krieger is hilarious as curmudgeonly chauvinist Horace Vandergelder, making Dolly's systematic clipping of his wings immensely satisfying. Sweet-voiced soprano Cynthia Marty is delightfully saucy as milliner Irene Molloy, and Ann Myers is enchanting as her giggly shop assistant Minnie Fay. As adventure-seeking shop clerk Cornelius Hackl, Bill Lewis is a nimble farceur, equally at home with comic pratfalls and lush romantic ballads ("It Only Takes a Moment").
One could quibble as to why Dolly's bouncy character-establishing song "I Put My Hand In" is missing, as well as about the lack of the traditional runway so "the old girl" can do her showstopping stroll. But grumpy nitpicking is perhaps best relegated to the Vandergelders of the world. Just as Dolly wins his heart, director Marsha Moode and company seduce us into falling in love with this old favorite all over again.
Presented by Downey Civic Light Opera at the Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd., Downey. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m. Jun. 2-18. (562) 923-1714.