Early in the first act of Jerry Zaks’ ultra-exuberant revival of the classic 1964 musical, “Hello, Dolly!”, now at the Shubert Theatre, a realistic-looking train (one of Santo Loquasto’s many colorful sets and costumes) appears onstage to transport some of Yonkers’ finest citizens to New York City. But no train from 1884, or even 2017, can rival the locomotive power of this show’s star, Bette Midler, who delivers an all-stops-out, look-at-me performance for the ages.
As originally conceived by Thornton Wilder in his play “The Matchmaker” – and then adapted for the musical world by Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman – Dolly Gallagher Levi is a truly original creation: a meddling, sometimes exasperating and ultimately loveable woman who treats others’ lives with sometimes careless abandon, while carefully plotting her own. In this case, her aim is marriage to the wealthy if irascible widower Horace Vandergelder (played by David Hyde Pierce)
What’s always been so great about Dolly is the way Stewart and Herman (whose score remains one of Broadway’s finest) have allowed the character to be shaped precisely to the personality and skills of whichever star takes on the title role. Midler – who looks beyond sensational at age 71 -- simply uses every quiver in her packed arsenal: her peerless ability with physical comedy (to say she makes a meal out of her onstage second-act meal is to be guilty of complete understatement); her perfect timing with a zinger; her willingness to invest in the show’s few truly dramatic moments; and the use of a still-flexible voice that can do justice to Herman’s complex melodies.
Yes, Midler can no longer shimmy and shake as she once did; but choreographer Warren Carlyle – who lets the ensemble really show off their terpsichorean talents in such numbers as “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “The Waiter’s Gallop” -- finds clever ways to let her “dance.” And, to his credit, Zaks allows Midler to bask in the frequent bursts of applause that greet almost everything she does. In the end, her Dolly is equal parts Wilder and Herman, Sophie Tucker and Mae West, and all Bette Midler. And that’s just dandy.
True, Zaks can be faulted for directing parts of the show as if it were an episode of a CBS sitcom. But he is also to be praised for surrounding Midler with a cast that can stand up to – or at least beside – her. Foremost among them is Pierce, who originally looks like he wandered off the stage of a Gilbert & Sullivan production, but who delivers a deliciously quirky yet honest interpretation of Horace that matches Midler laugh for laugh. (He’s also a fine singer, as evidenced by the show’s one new addition, the second-act solo, “Penny in My Pocket.”)
The beautiful Kate Baldwin is simply sublime as the feisty widow Irene Molloy, Horace’s intended bride, and her rendition of the gorgeous “Ribbons Down My Back” is practically show-stopping. Broadway newcomer Beanie Feldstein is simply delicious as her innocent assistant Minnie Fay, while the ever-appealing Gavin Creel and Taylor Trensch put on the gee-whiz charm as their equally naïve suitors (and Horace’s suffering clerks) Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker. And it’s always a pleasure to have the inventive Jennifer Simard on stage, even briefly, in a purposefully ridiculous turn as the faux-heiress Ernestina Money.
I suspect older audiences with good memories -- and who have seen many incarnations of “Dolly” -- either with or without original star Carol Channing, may find things to nitpick about here. And, yes, I heard at least a couple of audience members claim they preferred the lavish 1969 movie starring Barbra Streisand. Regardless, I place my bet on Bette for leaving any theatergoer with an ear-to-ear grin and the desire to say hello to her, and this joyful production, again and again.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Bette Midler, David Hyde Pierce, Gavin Creel, Kate Baldwin, Taylor Trensch, Beanie Feldstein, Will Burton, Melanie Moore, Jennifer Simard, Donna Murphy
Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 3/15/2017
225 West 44 Street
New York, NY 10036