"Vitality" is the word that springs to mind to describe the innovative Signature Theatre/Ford's Theatre co-production of "Hello, Dolly!" Also: "vision," specifically that of director Eric Schaeffer, who has shown once again how effective "less is more" can be.

Like its larger Broadway predecessors, this smaller-scale "Hello, Dolly!" tells the charming story of intrepid matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi, an independent woman who refuses to fit into the conventional mold of most late-19th-century women. But this time her story is told with a cast of only 16.

And although there are only eight musicians in the orchestra, this production still uses the extraordinary original music and lyrics by Jerry Herman (with a book by Michael Stewart), full of fabulous standards: "Before the Parade Passes By," "Elegance" and "Hello, Dolly!" to name just three. It is Kim Scharnber's completely new orchestrations that give the show its fresh sound.

The set, by Adam Koch, depicts a train station in Yonkers, where Dolly lives, as does Horace Vandergelder, a rich man whom Dolly has decided will be her next husband. Small set pieces slide into place, transforming the train station into a hat shop and a swanky restaurant.

If you go
'Hello, Dolly!'
» Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW
» When: Through May 18
» Info: $15 to $90; 800-982-2787; fords.org

Nancy Opel is well-cast as the spunky, clever Dolly. Whether singing or dancing or convincing Horace he can't live without her, Opel captures the lovable, playful spirit of a woman "of a certain age" determined to live a full, satisfying life.

For most of the musical, Edward Gero is endlessly irascible as Horace. Yet when he realizes he loves Dolly, Horace is transformed and his open heart makes love possible everywhere. Gero makes it the high point of the musical.

Horace's assistants, Cornelius Hackl (Gregory Maheu) and Barnaby Tucker (Zack Colonna), are portrayed appealingly. Cornelius is entranced by the businesswoman, Irene Molloy, a role beautifully acted and sung by Tracy Lynn Olivera, and Barnaby falls for a shop girl, Minnie Fay (Lauren Williams).

The dancing in this "Dolly" is spectacular, thanks to choreographer Karma Camp and the talented cast. All six principals are excellent dancers, and the rest of the ensemble joins them to perform waltzes, a polka, a cake walk, a soft shoe and an intricate tap dance. The numbers at the restaurant are particularly outstanding, full of leaping and soaring waiters.

Wade Laboissonniere's costumes for the women are charming end-of-the-century outfits, the hats adorned with multicolored feathers. Cornelius' and Barnaby's suits are colorful plaids. For her "Hello, Dolly!" entrance, Dolly gets a knockout crimson velvet/satin/taffeta gown.

Some may argue that scaling down a traditionally huge classic like "Hello, Dolly" is a risk. In this case, the risk more than pays off.