‘Hello, Dolly!’ on Broadway: All stand for Bette Midler
By Chris JonesContact Reporter
April 20, 2017
As the redoubtable Bette Midler seamlessly transitioned from the perils of a chronic onstage coughing fit to the received joy of yet another standing ovation the other night, United Airlines flew into my mind. That beleaguered corporation has been the subject of such opprobrium because it lacks what Midler carries into every performance of director Jerry Zaks‘ boffo revival of “Hello, Dolly!” at the Shubert Theatre: A deep reservoir of goodwill.
Among her fans, which sums up an orchestra section that behaved all night like the Shuberts had pulled out the seats and installed spring-loaded standing mechanisms in their stead, Midler has more rollover minutes than Sprint could ever conceive. Even if Midler had skipped “Before the Parade Passes By” entirely — rather than merely ad-libbing “live theater!” and gulping “Here it comes! Wish me luck!’ before vanquishing the frog and belting out the Jerry Herman anthem like nothing had happened — it is inconceivable that anyone would have hit the lobby for a transportation voucher out of there.
And that points to the shrewdness of Midler’s casting as Dolly Levi — not just for her box office appeal but because she is playing a character whose viability actually depends on that very same reservoir of affection. When Thornton Wilder created Dolly Levi for the director Tyrone Guthrie, basing “The Matchmaker” on an old Austrian comedy and one of Wilder’s own flops, he was building a satirical character designed to sit slightly off-center in a work arguing that practicality and stability have their crucial places in life, for sure, but that if you don’t have a few big nights out at the Harmonia Gardens (or your local equivalent), then that parade surely will pass you by, pal. And you’ll be dead before you know. A man of balance and cosmic awareness, that Wilder.
But when Michael Stewart and Herman turned Dolly into the titular star of a musical, they glossed over the weirdness of what Dolly Levi (“an arranger of things”) actually does, and they did not look too deep into its more mercurial dimensions. Instead they doubled down on the “life’s a banquet” portion of the source play.
Take, for example, the famous scene with the title number, wherein an old widow from Yonkers causes an entire collection of waiters to take up a gallop, the room swaying with a favorite song from way back, just by showing up at the front door. You try that at a favored eatery you’ve abandoned for a while and see how many busboys bother to tell you that you’re still glowin’ and still crowin’ and still goin’ strong. See who finds you a big fat lap without you dispensing a big, fat tip. But then, you’re not Midler.
With a grinning Midler coming down the staircase — and Zaks not only gives her a descent to remember but even her own little runway out in front of the orchestra and closer to her fans — that contrived chaos, choreographed throughout with a terrific sense of humor by Warren Carlyle, all makes sense.
I watched Carol Channing play this role many times, during her frequent hinterland tours, wherein every overly ambitious Barnaby was reminded whose name was on the marquee. Channing was, of course, fabulous in her greatest part. But she was an actress with a cooler temperament than Midler, who can out-diva any diva but whose fundamental forte is intimacy. Channing had one big grin for the whole theater, all the way to the back of the house. Midler, whose expressions can be as comedically rich and varied as those of the great Jackie Mason, makes separate eye contact with almost every row.
What about the rest of the show? Well, David Hyde Pierce (who plays Horace Vandergelder) squeezes some laughs out of what can often seem like a thankless part, Gavin Creel sounds spectacular as Cornelius, and (quite crucially) the unassuming Kate Baldwin softens and deepens Irene Molloy, whose scenes can drag when she is played with a broad shrill. I don’t want to imply there is some revisionist revelation at work here, for there is not, nor any deep emotional probation. But you can easily intuit the really, really good time everyone seems to be having. The bonhomie radiates around the theater. Midler is a hedge against peril; no act of God nor presidential decree nor devil ever could bring this edifice down. Her personality is like turmeric.
The edifice, actually, is designed by Santo Loquasto to deliver a plethora of eye-popping pleasures — that’s a real train, Virginia, and that’s a whole lot of stacked plates in that dancing waiter’s mitt — while still keeping to the show’s old-timey rules. Among the many pleasures are a rolling series of gorgeous painted backdrops that first puddle on the floor of the stage, only then to be lifted and revealed one at a time as Cornelius, Barnaby (Taylor Trensch) and their dates cavort around the New York of memory and myth. It’s like watching a piano roll, and it’s quite beautiful.
You’d fairly call this a retro, old-school staging, replete with shtick, deadpangags and other famed Zaks signatures. But here again, Midler is the hedge. She’s no young punk, of course, but she nonetheless retains a dimpled aura of the countercultural.
Simply put, the shrewdly Divine Miss M. keeps a hip Dolly, and that’s a quality you don’t see in your Mrs. Levi everyday.
“Hello, Dolly!” plays on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., New York; HelloDollyonBroadway.com