Lee Roy Reams adores Dolly Levi.
Of course, she’s only a character in a beloved Broadway musical, but their intimate relationship spans nearly four decades. This fall, he will finally take on that iconic role in the first sanctioned performance of its kind at The Wick in Boca Raton.
Reams, a classic song and dance man, portrayed Cornelius Hackl in the 1978 revival starring Carol Channing. He became friends with composer Jerry Herman, writer Michael Stewart and producer David Merrick, but this was just the beginning of the love affair with Dolly.
“It’s a wonderful role and I love the score. It’s practically the perfect musical,” he explained from his Manhattan apartment. “When you think about Dolly, she takes on the role of her dead husband and his philosophy. It’s a story about a woman rejoining the human race and seeking adventure.”
Reams also proudly added, “She’s Irish by background and I’m Irish by background.”
By the second Broadway revival in 1994, Channing tasked Reams with directing—and reprising his role as Cornelius when the production hit the road.
Since then, he has directed Channing, Madeline Kahn, Michelle Lee, Leslie Uggams, Jo Ann Worley, Randy Graff and even an all-Asian production. During one of the Channing tours, Reams actually toyed with the idea of casting himself as the understudy for Dolly, “but Carol is notorious for never missing a performance.” As it happens, she did catch a bug, but that would not be his opportunity.
Performing in drag would not be a novelty for the actor, who has donned wigs and heels for gender-bending roles in “La Cage aux Folles,” “Victor/Victoria” and “The Producers.” It’s not a new idea, Reams points out, since female roles were always played by men in Shakespeare’s day. And composer Herman knew of his aspirations and approved, when the time was right.
After his run as the transvestite performer Alban in “La Cage” at The Wick, executive producer Marilynn Wick insisted Reams return and with it, the perfect opportunity. Wick, the owner of Costume World, the largest supplier of theatrical costumes in the country, immediately assigned a designer to create a wardrobe for Reams, based on the original Broadway production that has been on display in the costume museum located behind the Boca theater’s stage.
“Marilynn is very brave. She raised two daughters and built a business in a man’s world. She’s a pioneer,” praised Reams, who likened her to Dolly Levi. “She’s not afraid to take a gamble.”
So, is there any particular actress Reams might channel for his own performance?
“I don’t do Carol Channing,” he responded resolutely. “I wouldn’t want to do Carol Channing. I want to bring the character to the fore and that’s what I will do.”
As an experienced director, he always put his emphasis on the development of the character, especially when working with such a diverse bevy of stars. But, if pushed, he supposed his Dolly would be most like Rosalyn Russell, an actress who never played the role but it most famous for “Mame.”
Reams continues to come back to his longtime association with Dolly and her back story: “That’s why I think a man can do it. It’s not that I like to dress up in women’s clothes.”
“The point of being an actor is to play roles you can’t play in real life. In today’s world, sexuality—transgender, bi-, tri-, quad-, whatever—it’s time people have become more comfortable with it all,” he elaborated.
As for the Wick production, Reams knows it will be historic, but “we’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re just doing ‘Hello, Dolly!’” and to borrow a popular advertising slogan, he’s “loving it.”
Lee Roy Reams directs and stars in “Hello, Dolly!” at The Wick, 7901 N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton, Nov. 5 – Dec. 6. Tickets are $65-75 at TheWick.org.