She hosted almost 250 episodes of “Trading Spaces.” She starred on Broadway. But when she’s in Utah, Paige Davis is most often approached by people who want to talk about furniture.
“They all want to tell me what they bought at RC Willey,” she said with a laugh, “which is great. I love that. Nobody stop. It’s awesome.”
Davis appeared in RC Willey commercials from 2008 to 2018. “That’s a pretty long time,” she said. “It’s how the majority of people in Utah got to know my name and who I am. So I don’t really see that ever going away.”
Not many Utahns approach her to talk about her extensive background in musical theater. And she acknowledges that locals might be surprised to learn that she’s headlining Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of “Hello, Dolly!” — which runs from May 13 to 28 at the Pioneer Memorial Theatre on the University of Utah campus.
“I certainly don’t want people thinking that their home furnishing representative is going to be leading this massive musical,” Davis said. “They should know that I’m very trained. My whole life was musical theater, and dancing was my first passion and my number one love, long before I ever did ‘Trading Spaces.’ Certainly long before I ever represented RC Willey.”
It was her husband’s idea
Davis has never starred in “Hello, Dolly” before, but her husband — actor Patrick Page — suggested she ought to try it after she played “another Jerry Herman diva” in “Mame” a few years ago.
(Page spent six seasons with the Utah Shakespeare Festival, where, in addition to acting, he was the director of development. He also starred in several PTC productions. And Paige is Davis’ middle name, so her full married name is Mindy Paige Davis Page.)
“Hello, Dolly!” — which won 10 Tonys, including Best Musical, in 1964, and four more for the 2017 revival — adapts Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” the story of Dolly Levi, a recently widowed matchmaker who travels to Yonkers, New York, at the turn of the last century to find a wife for the miserly Horace Vandergelder. She sets her eye on him for herself, and plays matchmaker for several other people she encounters during her efforts to land Horace.
In addition to the titular tune, the show includes more than a dozen Jerry Herman songs, including “It Takes a Woman,” “Before the Parade Passes By” and “The Waiters’ Gallop.”
According to Davis, her husband said, “‘You should play Dolly. You are her. That’s what you do. You’ve also come back to life multiple times.’ And he was really right about that. I pick myself up a lot.” Which parallels the story of the Dolly Levi character.
“I definitely know what it means to rebuild yourself and remake yourself, rejoin the living,” Davis said. “Come back from injuries, come back from pain, come back from disappointment, come back from betrayal. You know, starting again. And remembering that life is joyous, and then being ready to claim it.”
That’s what her husband was thinking when he suggested she’d be right for the role. Page asked his manager to reach out to Pioneer Theater on Davis’ behalf “to see if they thought that it would be a good fit and if they were interested.”
After “a very long talk via Zoom” with PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg, they decided there was mutual interest. What was Davis’ initial reaction when she was offered the part?
“Terror!” she said, bursting out laughing. “I was, like — I talked a really good game and now I have to actually do it.”
Davis said she didn’t think she was “traditional casting” for the role of middle-aged widow Dolly Levi, which is most identified with two very different actresses — Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand.
Channing originated the role written on Broadway in 1964 when she was 43 and starred in several revivals, the last in 1995 when she was 74. Streisand was just 26 when she filmed the movie, released in 1969.
“It’s a very large role. It’s a huge responsibility,” said Davis, 52. “It’s a big musical with big numbers. And we need to root for Dolly. We want Dolly to join the human race again.”
Theater goers quickly learn how much Dolly was missed through the reactions of the other characters.
“A lot of how you know someone is a king is because you witness other people bow,” Davis said. “You realize the impact Dolly had on their lives is commensurate to the level of happiness that she is showered with upon her return. … We see through the eyes of everyone else the impact of her leaving what that did. It left a hole.”
But her return is joyous.
“Oh, it’s grand fun,” Davis said. “I mean, the best thing in the world is going to happen — everyone’s going to end up happy. I mean, spoiler alert! Everyone ends up happy, and it’s wonderful.”
Broadway dreams and reality TV
Growing up, Davis’ dreamed of starring in Broadway musicals. And she did go to Broadway, starring in revivals of “Chicago” and the farce “Boeing-Boeing,” and in touring companies of “Sweet Charity” and “Chicago.”
She met her husband when they were both in the touring company of “Beauty and the Beast” — he was Lumiere, and she was Babette, the feather duster.
“Broadway was always my number one goal,” Davis said. “I achieved that before I ever even did ‘Trading Spaces.’ That’s always been my passion.”
But she’s well aware that, at least outside the areas that saw her in RC Willey commercials, she’s best known as the host of one of the original home improvement/remodeling shows. She was the ever-perky host who kept a sense of optimism about neighbors who each remade a room in the other neighbors’ house. With the help of designers. In just 48 hours.
It was a job she never imagined doing, and one that she turned out to be very good at. Davis clearly had a natural ability, but she credits her theater training.
“You have to be in the moment,” she said. “There’s no script. They don’t tell you, ‘OK, now you’re going to say this.’ You have to go with what’s happening. You’ve got to follow your impulses. That means being funny, not being afraid to make a fool of yourself, not taking yourself too seriously. And I think those are the same qualities that make a good actress.”
And the skills she learned as a host “absolutely” helped her as an actor — teaching her how to deal with the unexpected and the spontaneous. “It just gave me a lot more confidence,” Davis said. “I was lucky enough to be a part of something that was very successful. … It told my brain, ‘Oh — you’re actually good enough. You’re cool. You didn’t ruin a whole project because of your existence on planet Earth.’ When you have confidence issues , that was like a really big thing for me to learn at age 34. …
“That was just really reassuring. It was just a beautiful lesson to learn.”
Keeping everyone happy
Davis said she took her hosting job “very seriously, and I really did enjoy getting to know the neighbors. I wanted them to have a good experience, not just on camera, but also off camera. … Making sure no one was getting grumpy, because it’s really, really, really long hours and really, really, really hard, manual labor. ‘Trading Spaces’ was really, really hard.”
She wasn’t the one doing most of the labor — that fell to the neighbors and the designers — but she was the one who was with the homeowners when the rooms were unveiled. And not all the homeowners were happy about the results.
“But there’s not one person who didn’t like their room on ‘Trading Spaces’ that didn’t love the experience of ‘Trading Spaces,’” she said. “Well, actually, there is one who didn’t.”
That would be a homeowner in a 2003 episode who hated brown who was not happy to discover her room had been painted — you guessed it — brown. The woman actually tackled her neighbor, screaming, “I hate brown,” and never spoke to her again.
And there was “the most infamous reveal of all time” — when “Crying Pam” broke down when she saw her beloved fireplace had been covered. She continued crying even when she was told the covering could be removed.
“And I asked her husband, ‘Are you sad or disappointed that you did this?’” Davis said. “And he said, ‘Oh no. I would go through these last 10 minutes all over again, just to have the two days we just had.’”
Davis said the timing “couldn’t be better” for PTC’s production of “Hello, Dolly!”
“I think we all need something to make us feel good right now,” she said. “I mean, I certainly wouldn’t wish for a pandemic the next time I do Dolly, but I think audience members are going to align with her. We can all relate to this now on a very palpable level.
“This is still going to be a musical. It’s still going to be fun. It’s still going to be all these things. But I think people might come out of it going, ‘Wow! I never knew I loved ‘Hello, Dolly’ so much!’”
Dolly, back where she belongs
Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of “Hello, Dolly!”, starring Paige Davis — Broadway actor, longtime host of “Trading Spaces” and former RC Willey pitchwoman — as Dolly Levi.
When • Opens Friday, May 13. Evening performances will run Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Mondays-Thursdays weeknights at 7 p.m. through May 28, with matinees Saturday at 2 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East on the University of Utah campus.
Tickets • $48 - $72 in advance; $5 more the day of the show. Available at the box office, by calling 801-581-6962, or online at pioneertheatre.org.
Special casting • Five familiar Utah faces, all non-actors, have been picked to play the role of The Judge in this production: Martell Teasley, interim provost of the University of Utah (May 12-14); Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department (May 16-18); Babs Delay, activist and real-estate agent (May 19-21); Utah State Senator Luz Escamilla (May 23-25); and Fox13 reporter Ben Winslow (May 26-28).
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