NEW YORK — The only time I ever saw Ethel Merman on a stage was when she played Dolly Gallagher Levi. In memory, 15-year-old me is seated in the front row — was it really the front row?!? — of the St. James Theatre, at the very end of the 6 1/2-year Broadway run of “Hello, Dolly!” Was I too young to appreciate fully the momentousness of the occasion? Yes, for sure!
So all these years later, I’m in an aisle seat in the Shubert Theatre, a lot better prepared to appreciate the new “Hello, Dolly!” chapter now being written. Because I’m far more deeply steeped in Broadway history.
And also because: Bette Midler.
It’s hard not to think “Midler” as soon as you contemplate a thoroughly satisfying 2017 revival of the 1964 Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart show, as hearty an emblem of the exuberance of the Broadway musical as any ever written. Okay, maybe it’s too schmaltzy a relic to land on the all-time best lists. But as Midler reveals, in a performance pitched as perfectly as a Sandy Koufax no-hitter, “Dolly!” in the right hands is unalloyed joy.
And the “Dolly!” that had its official opening at the Shubert on Thursday night is all that. It delivers on exactly what’s craved by lovers of old-school musicals from the era when giants like Merman roamed the Earth: big, gleeful performances and the kind of production numbers intended to move you as much as move along the story. Midler has the lioness’s share of the lift here, delivering buoyant renditions of “Before the Parade Passes By” and “So Long Dearie” and, of course, executing a downstage strut in red beaded gown and feather headdress for that champagne toast of a title song. She is given expert support, though, from David Hyde Pierce, who would seem oddly cast as that grizzled skinflint and object of Dolly’s nuptial desire, Horace Vandergelder. Yet he turns in a completely fresh comic performance, seasoned with just enough lemon and vinegar, and amplified by a number added for him at the top of Act 2, “Penny in My Pocket.”
Let’s be clear: You don’t go to “Hello, Dolly!” for the art — although Herman’s score does epitomize the kind of tunesmith’s craftsmanship that goes underappreciated these days. The revival, directed by Jerry Zaks and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, is the first on Broadway since a 1995 remounting with Carol Channing reprising her original, Tony-winning performance. Past Dollys have also included the likes of Pearl Bailey and Ginger Rogers, and so playing Broadway’s greatest busybody feels as if it’s an ascension into some sort of leading-lady hall of fame. In musicals, perhaps only Mame, “Gypsy’s” Momma Rose, “Sweeney Todd’s” Mrs. Lovett and “Annie’s” Miss Hannigan are roles for older actresses of commensurate canonical caliber.
In particular, Kate Baldwin and Gavin Creel, as Horace’s prospective bride, Irene Molloy, and his chief clerk, Cornelius Hackl, offer up enjoyably big-voiced embodiments of the story’s main romantic couple. Baldwin applies a silky vocal patina to the ballad “Ribbons Down My Back,” and Creel’s “It Only Takes a Moment” takes appealing advantage of this actor’s winning presence. Only in the satirical “Elegance,” sung by this pair and the younger one of Taylor Trensch’s Barnaby Tucker and Beanie Feldstein’s Minnie Fay, does an over-broad attack undo a great number. One needs to sense a dynamic here other than vivaciousness for its own sake, and that at present is all that the number succeeds in conveying.
So put aside any expectation of subtlety. With Midler in charge, you know for certain what you’re in for: a rude, giddy burst of comic enchantment. (And just you wait for the eating scene.) All this, and “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” too. The pastel assortment of costumes by Santo Loquasto is almost unnecessary. On a stage, Midler is all the rainbow you ever need.
Hello, Dolly!, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman; book by Michael Stewart. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreography, Warren Carlyle; sets and costumes, Santo Loquasto; lighting, Natasha Katz; music direction, Andy Einhorn; sound, Scott Lehrer; orchestrations, Larry Hochman. With Will Burton, Melanie Moore, Jennifer Simard, Kevin Ligon. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Tickets, $59-$599. At Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.