It was a chorus of “Hello, Dolly!” when Nikki James, who grew up performing on Livingston stages, returned to LHS as a Tony-award winner who once shined as one of the most fabulous meddlers on the musical stage -- Dolly Gallagher Levi.
You couldn’t help but hum …
You're lookin' swell, Dolly … I can tell, Dolly You're still glowin '... you're still crowin '...
She’s still going strong after 800 performances and counting in The Book of Mormon, the irreverent -- or as James explained, “that’s code for wildly offensive” -- Broadway show that swept the Tony awards in 2011, including best musical, the best featured actress prize for James, and best orchestrations for Stephen Oremus, who also starred on the LHS stage. (He also recently visited; see “In the Music Room with Stephen Oremus”).
“How are rehearsals going?” James asked this year’s “Hello, Dolly!” cast currently in rehearsals to reprise the beloved musical on March 14-March 16 at LHS.
She gave a nod to this year’s Dolly, Scarlett Ferman.
“Are you excited,” the Tony winner asked.
“I’m ecstatic,” Scarlett told her.
On February 4, James shared inside Broadway gossip, and college and audition advice with the aspiring actors. They’ve been working with musical director Mike Jedwabnik and choreographer Gina Montalto on the classic musical numbers.
Janene DePalo, a fourth-grader teacher at Riker Hill who was doing costumes for LHS productions when James was a student, is directing the show. DePalo has stayed in touch with the actor over the years and simply asked her if she would be willing to come in and talk with the cast.
“The rest as they say, is history,” DePalo said.
The aspiring performers were delighted to have the Tony winner back at LHS. She starred as the matchmaker in the 1999 LHS production. “A bit of a stretch,” she told the students. “Dolly’s a Yenta from the Bronx. I was a Catholic black girl from Livingston.”
James passed around her Tony (it’s heavy!) and the cast jumped on stage to rehearse some of her old favorite songs from way back when.
James recalled the first time she performed the title number on the impressive staircase built for the set. “I didn’t feel like a kid during a high school production. I felt like an actor.”
Her seriousness, commitment and communion with her fellow actors and the audience hasn’t changed since the LHS stage, she said. The only difference is the length of the runs: one weekend for the high school musical vs. a Broadway hit and eight shows a week for the foreseeable future.
“There’s a story about bumblebees,” said James when handed her Tony six months after the Book of Mormon opened for her portrayal of Nabalungi, a young African girl swept up in a promise of hope and salvation.
“Physicists couldn’t figure out how they did it, how they flew. And we all know that they do. We’ve seen them do it,” she said. “They did it because nobody told them that they couldn’t because of sheer will and determination. I come from a long line of bumblebees.”
James graduated from NYU’s Tisch School, receiving a BFA in drama. She made her Broadway debut in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, appeared in All Shook Up, and received critical acclaim when she appeared opposite Christopher Plummer at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival playing Cleopatra to Plumber’s Caesar.
On Livingston stages, James is well remembered for her performances in children’s shows with the Livingston Community Players and JCC. Her performance in Hello, Dolly! earned her a Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Award nomination.
“I am so grateful that nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t fly,” James said.
James recently signed a six-month contract to continue with Book of Mormon. She will also be appearing in several upcoming films. As for beyond Mormon …
“Maybe I’ll come back and do your musical next year.”