If anyone still has any qualms about the casting of Broadway legend Bernadette Peters as the irrepressible matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi in Jerry Zaks’ ultra-exuberant revival of the classic 1964 musical, “Hello, Dolly!”, now at the Shubert Theatre, don’t! I promise you’ll be singing “So Long Dearie” to those doubts long before the eternally youthful and wondrously talented actress stops this steamroller of a production (for the third or fourth time) with a priceless rendition of that comic gem late in act two.
Indeed, giving a thoroughly different yet equally expert take on Dolly as her recent celebrated predecessors – Bette Midler and Donna Murphy (not to mention the role’s originator, Carol Channing) -- Peters does more than full justice to the character of Dolly, originally conceived by Thornton Wilder in his play “The Matchmaker” and then adapted for the musical world by Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman.
Fortunately for any actress, Dolly is a truly special creation: a constantly meddling, sometimes exasperating, often poignant and ultimately loveable woman. A longtime widow who has spent years living hand to mouth and relying on her wiles, she sometimes treats others’ lives with careless abandon, while carefully plotting her own. In this case, her main aim is marriage to the wealthy if irascible widower Horace Vandergelder (played with delicious wryness and dryness by Victor Garber), while also arranging for the felicitous pairing of his various associates and relatives.
Still oozing her particular kewpie-doll charm and singular sex appeal, Peters enchants not only the staff of the entire Harmonia Gardens but the entire audience during a sensational version of the title tune and can still trot out a strong yet flexible voice that lends power to such ballads as “Before the Parade Passes By.” If all that is to be expected, her comic brilliance is a bit of a surprise; she manages to find many very funny moments -- some sounding like off-hand ad-libs – even in places even Midler couldn’t find them, while also making a meal of laughs out of almost orgasmically eating her onstage second-act supper.
True, Zaks seems to be encouraging Peters, and everyone else on stage, to play the show’s comedy broadly: even more than on my first three visits, the show sometimes feels like an episode of a second-rate CBS sitcom. And the pace of some scenes is now so fast that one wonders if there is an actual train back to Yonkers that someone has to catch.
Fortunately, one can linger a bit during the show’s ensemble numbers, where choreographer Warren Carlyle -- primarily re-creating much of Gower Champion’s original work -- lets the ensemble really show off their terpsichorean talents in such numbers as the glorious “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” (spectacularly outfitted by Santo Loquasto) and the breathtaking “The Waiter’s Gallop.” Peters, who began her Broadway career in dance-heavy roles, still moves quite well too, adding another layer to the production.
In no way, however, is “Dolly” a one-woman show, and Peters has an A-team of back-up players. In addition to longtime pal Garber, with whom she exhibits palpable chemistry, there’s Tony Award winner Gavin Creel providing irresistible charm and charisma as Horace’s long-suffering clerk Cornelius Hackl and the beautiful Kate Baldwin, who is simply sublime as the feisty widow Irene Molloy. (Her rendition of the gorgeous “Ribbons Down My Back” is practically worth the price of admission.)
Meanwhile, British song-and-dance sensation Charlie Stemp, in his U.S. stage debut, is adorably boyish as teen clerk Barnaby Tucker, and provokes well-deserved oohs and aahs with his pirouettes and plies (which have been added just for him). As his love interest, Irene’s seemingly innocent assistant Minnie Fay, Broadway newcomer Molly Griggs is indescribably delicious,
In smaller roles, Melanie Moore, as Horace’s ever-sniveling niece Ermengarde, and Will Burton as her love interest, Ambrose Kemper, add color to the production. So do the larger-than-life Kevin Ligon as blustering headwaiter Rudolph and the blissfully inventive Jennifer Simard in a purposefully ridiculous and utterly hilarious turn as the faux-heiress Ernestina Money.
So no matter how many times you’ve called on “Dolly” in the past – on Broadway, in summer stock or even on film –take all the cash in your change purse, put on whatever clothes you have, and head over to the Shubert, whether it takes you a moment or month to get tickets. Bernadette Peters is back where she belongs on the Great White Way, and giving the performance of a lifetime!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Bernadette Peters, 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