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The star cast of “Hello, Dolly!” reflects Encore’s growth

Hello, Jodi.

That's Disney legend Jodi Benson onstage at Tony Steinmetz Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center, starring in “Hello, Dolly!” – the latest and most ambitious project from Orlando-based nonprofit Encore Performing Arts.

Benson was named an official Disney Legend in 2011 as the voice of the title character in The Little Mermaid. Her presence in Hello, Dolly! reflects both the origin of the Encore organization and its continued growth.

Encore was founded in 2002 by employees of Walt Disney World. “Hello, Dolly!” shows how far the organization has come – from concerts to large-scale productions that now feature star-studded casts.

Onstage at dress rehearsal Thursday night at the downtown arts center, executive producer Jason Brame and his colleagues announced another expansion: A new development team will focus on finding more individual and corporate sponsors for productions that have grown dramatically over the past 22 years. The theater program for “Hello, Dolly” hints at an expanded 2024-25 season that will include a cabaret, a concert, a musical, an educational program and “something special.”

All aboard! “Hello, Dolly,” with set design by Cliff Price, is onstage at the Dr. Phillips Center with a production of Encore Performing Arts. (Courtesy of Bagwell Photography via Encore Performing Arts)

“We started out with about 40 members in our choir, eight in the orchestra and about 20 dancers,” says co-founder and artistic director Clay Price on the organization's website, encorecentral.org. “The group actually came about because we were a little sedentary at work and wanted to do more than what we did every day in our jobs.”

It's a long way from concerts hosted primarily for Disney employees and friends to “Hello, Dolly!”, whose Friday night show sold out with over 1,500 tickets sold. There are only a few seats left for the Saturday night show; after tickets snapped up so quickly, a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. was added, and that's where most of the seats are available.

And it is definitely a show worth seeing.

From mermaid to matchmaker: Jodi Benson says “Hello, Dolly!”

In many ways, director Kristen Sheola has staged a stylishly prototypical “Hello, Dolly!”, from the appealing choreography by Trase Milburn and Olivia Milburn to the period costumes by Wesley Schafer, complete with red dress and feather headdress.

What sets this production apart is Benson and her energy in the title role, made famous by greats like Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey.

Benson brings a playfulness, a vulnerability and, at times, almost giddiness to Dolly, a role often played as a laser-focused battle axe. This is a Dolly who truly loves life. You can hear it in the giggle Benson charmingly adds to “I Put My Hand in Here.” The iconic stair walk isn't so much a bossy return as it is a sprint to old friends. And the lump in her throat at the start of “Before the Parade Passes By” might give you a lump in your throat, too.

Barnaby, Minnie Fay, Irene and Cornelius (Oakley Thacker, from left, Solmarie Cruz Martinez, Natalie Hightower and Adam Paul) are on a walk with
Barnaby, Minnie Fay, Irene and Cornelius (Oakley Thacker, from left, Solmarie Cruz Martinez, Natalie Hightower and Adam Paul) take a walk with “Elegance” in the Encore Performing Arts production of “Hello, Dolly!” (Courtesy of Matthew Hiemenz/Black Hat Photography via Encore Performing Arts)

As her counterpart and lover Horace, Christopher Schmidt also brings a lot of humanity to the sometimes grumpy old man. The supporting cast – especially Natalie Hightower, who gives a beautiful rendition of “Ribbons Down My Back” as the love-struck Irene Molloy – provide the necessary enthusiasm and cheerfulness.

Clay Price conducts the magnificently sounding stage orchestra and the ensemble fills the stage with color and movement.

At my preview, there were only a few minor hiccups related to the teething issues of a larger-than-usual production. While Cliff Price's set captures the spirit of the show—particularly the candy-colored train that chugs onto the stage during “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”—the large stage makes it look a little too bare in smaller scenes, and Holly Wheldon Carpenter's lighting design offers no help.

What's going on at the Dr. Phillips Center? A lot

The size of the stage is partly compensated for by decorated gauze curtains, but the lighting often obscured their images or cast strange shadows.

Still, the sense of fun shines as bright as Benson’s smile.

In his curtain call speech on Thursday night, Brame emphasized that the purpose of Encore goes beyond the stage.

“These shows are more than just a moment of entertainment,” he said, pointing to his organization’s mission to “make Central Florida a better place to live.”

Christopher Schmidt and Jodi Benson bring appealing humanity without compromising the comedy of their characters in the Encore Performing Arts production of
Christopher Schmidt and Jodi Benson bring an appealing humanity to their characters without losing the comedy in Encore Performing Arts' production of “Hello, Dolly!” (Courtesy of Bagwell Photography via Encore Performing Arts)

To that end, Encore designates a beneficiary for each of its performances. “Hello, Dolly!” benefits Give Kids the World Village, the nonprofit resort in Kissimmee that provides respite for seriously ill children and their families. Volunteers, staff and guests of Give Kids the World attend the weekend performances, and Benson and cast members have visited children there.

A portion of the proceeds from the “Hello, Dolly!” run are donated to Give Kids the World. Since Encore was founded, the group has donated more than $300,000 to local nonprofits, Clay Price says.

In his message on the website, he writes that the organization's mission has remained the same throughout the years, even as the organization has grown.

“The only thing that stays the same is the feeling of family and pride in what we do,” he says. “Being able to give back to our community and provide everyone with the opportunity to be creative has never changed.”

Follow me on facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or email me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com. For more arts news, visit OrlandoSentinel.com/entertainment.

'Hello, Dolly!'

  • Length: 2:50, including break
  • Where: Steinmetz Hall in Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 445 S. Magnolia Ave. in Orlando
  • When: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday
  • Cost: $29 and more
  • The information: drphillipscenter.org

Anna Harden

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