Hello Dolly is truly the quintessential American musical. Jerry Herman’s 1964 score enjoyed long runs in both the West End and on Broadway, was filmed for the big screen starring Barbra Streisand as Dolly, the title track was a chart hit for Louis Armstrong and the show has enjoyed countless revivals including a relatively recent run at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre with Samantha Spiro in the lead role. Now it surfaces again at Leicester Curve as their seasonal show, directed by Paul Kerryson and with award-winning actress-singer Janie Dee, following the success of their last two classic American musicals The King and I (also with Dee) and last Christmas’ 42nd Street. So is it worth seeing again in Leicester? The fortunate answer is a resounding yes – Dolly truly is back where she belongs.

Dolly Levi is the local matchmaker who meddles in the lives of various townsfolk in Yonkers, a town north of New York, in the show’s 1895 setting. Dolly attempts to discourage wealthy store-owner Horace Vandergelder from marrying various local ladies, as she has her eye on him for herself. Along the way we meet his employees, chief clerk Cornelius Hackl and his assistant Barnaby Tucker, and local milliner Irene Molloy, a widow, and her assistant Minnie Fay. Dolly naturally succeeds in matching Hackl with Molloy, and Tucker with Fay, bagging Vandergelder herself at the end of the show. However, the strengths of this Hello Dolly lie not only in great characterisation (of which more later), but in the joyous way in which two of the show’s iconic set pieces are played out. The end of act one closer ‘Before The Parade Passes By’, set on fourteenth street, New York, sees the whole company take to the stage in a succession of colourful outfits as different characters in the parade, against a backdrop of American flags. Just when you think that it can’t get any better than this, Kerryson ups the ante as a local brass band take to the stage, ticker tape comes down and the whole scene practically explodes with sheer joy and panache. The brass band runs through a succession of American songbook numbers in the foyer during the interval too. The restaurant scene in act two at the Harmonia Gardens is equally exciting to watch. Choreographer David Needham has put together quite a stunning routine with galloping waiters leaping everywhere with trays of food and drink, going in and out of the action as various guests arrive (the quartet of young lovers in one booth, Vandergelder and Kerry Washington’s mischievous and unsuitable Ernestina in the other, with Cameron Ball’s frenetic orchestra conductor adding to the chaos). This tremendously energetic routine gets even more frenetic towards the end as the waiters are ordered to go even faster. Immediately afterwards is the key moment when Dolly arrives at the Harmonia Gardens, making a legendary return there down a long staircase to the show’s title song. Musical comedy really doesn’t get much better than this.

The company that Kerryson has put together for his Dolly all tell their character stories clearly, and their individual songs are even more powerful as a result. Take Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Irene Molloy, for example. As soon as Pitt-Pulford enters the stage, a little while into act one, the character is completely developed straight away. The fact that Molloy is a milliner and a widow, who has lost the one true love of her life, is conveyed truthfully and movingly, and Pitt-Pulford manages the transition from a lady who was going to settle for financial security (in Vandergelder), until she meets Hackl, initially leading him on for fun before falling for his innocence and boyish charm. She sings her act one solo ‘Ribbons down your back’ with a sense of poignancy and fun, and having just missed her portrayal of Mabel in Jerry Herman’s cult musical Mack and Mabel at the Southwark Playhouse, I’ll be keeping a closer eye on Pitt-Pulford’s career from now on – and Ngo Ngofa’s Minnie Fay was a strong performance too. Michael Xavier’s Hackl is also fully realised – Xavier and Jason Denton’s Barnaby enter out of the stage floor (representing the shop basement) early in the piece, staging a minor explosion there in order to shut up shop and head to New York for the day. His act two ‘It only takes a moment’ number is especially heartfelt. There’s an excellent portrayal of the usually over-curmudgeonly Vandergelder by Dale Rapley, who succeeds in avoiding over alienating the audience and gradually allowing us to warm to him by the end (with a lovely understated version of the title song showing his love for Dolly and fully transforming him into a thoroughly likeable guy), in a fully realised story arc.

So what about Dee’s Dolly? Dee actually pulls off Dolly Levi surprisingly well, even if her singing voice isn’t as top notch as her acting at times. Rather than being a standout presence as Dolly, Dee injects the role with a strong likeability, allowing the comedy to be truthful, with sensitive comic timing. Making her entrance through the stalls, Dee’s Dolly tips a wink – and several asides – to the audience, giving various people her ‘card’ which states the many and various occupations she pretends to uphold in her ‘nothing’s impossible’ world. The audience root for her from the start and there’s a palpable sense of relief when Dolly finally gets the sign she needs ‘from my late husband Ephraim Levi’ to get married again.

Hello Dolly needs a big stage – and big staging – to be fully realised, and is truly at home on the Curve’s large stage. There is plenty of room at the back of the stage for the band, under musical director Ben Atkinson, which works especially well in the scenes in the Harmonia Gardens where the band play for the dance competition where Vandergelder’s young niece (Keisa Atwell) and her artist boyfriend (Simon Donovan) are strong contenders. Sara Perks’ costumes have lots of colour and style, also creating partially black and white sequences for the chorus too, and her set is quite minimalist, using the central staircase differently for different scenes or locations, prior to the classic title number sequence. A video design at the top of the back of the stage (designed by Arnim Friess) is occasionally overused but is a useful backdrop that emphasised different locations, creating an effective sense of movement in the railroad scene. Paul Kerryson’s confident direction of the piece ensures that the pace never drags and that the action is moved on quickly, and David Needham’s choreography is a real strength in the piece, and always sharp. In short, this is a razzle dazzle of a show with some of Jerry Herman’s best loved tunes, a book by Michael Stewart that, unlike many musical comedies of that era, hasn’t dated and is still very funny, and a well cast company. Hard to believe that it’s 16 years since Kerryson directed another Herman show, Mack and Mabel, in a joyous production that transferred from Leicester to London’s West End – Kerryson’s take on another Herman show, Mame, would surely be a must-see. In the meantime, Hello Dolly has been extended at the Curve by a week until 19 January, and I’m already looking forward to the prospect of next year’s seasonal show, whatever that might be.