Hello, Dolly! review – Bette Midler is irresistible in a riotous delight

The Guardian
Hello, Dolly! review – Bette Midler is irresistible in a riotous delight
By Alexis Soloski
Friday 21 April 2017 02.00 EDT

Before our benighted age of Tinder and Grindr, couples met the old-fashioned way: they paid women money to introduce them. Musicals used to get together the old-fashioned way, too: plush costumes paired with lush sets, high-stepping dances with groanworthy jokes. These approaches survive in this bluntly nostalgic and volubly entertaining revival of the 1964 musical with lyrics and music by Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart.

The irresistible Bette Midler plays the enterprising Dolly Levi – a matchmaker, dance teacher, ear-piercer, trial lawyer and varicose-vein reducer. If Midler once had the voice for the part, seven decades and eight shows a week have worn it into something a lot raspier. Sometimes she sounds brassy enough, at other times like a woodwind with a wonky reed. But the spirit of the show is so infectious, and Midler such an adored and adorable presence, that the audience applauds her at entrance, exit and several times in between.

In the script, adapted by Stewart from a Thornton Wilder farce, in turn adapted from an Austrian play, Dolly is doing double-duty. She’s arranging a union between a guileless artist (Will Burton) and his teenage sweetie, while also co-ordinating a bride for the sweetie’s uncle, the semi-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (David Hyde Pierce).

Bette Midler, with David Hyde Pierce as her target, Horace Vandergelder.
Bette Midler, with David Hyde Pierce as her target, Horace Vandergelder. Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

Though Dolly has introduced Horace to an alluring milliner (Kate Baldwin), she decides that she wants him for herself and she won’t take “I don’t” for an answer. Mildly complicating factors include a parade, an arrest for disturbing the peace, and an unauthorised holiday for Vandergelder’s two clerks (Gavin Creel and Taylor Trensch). Will these catastrophes resolve peaceably? Will the characters pair off dotingly? Have you never seen a musical comedy?

Director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle take their cues from Gower Champion’s original production, save that the smiles and the shtick and the microphones seem turned up even higher. At a preview performance, at least one of the microphones balked and the show was halted while the sound was recalibrated. This relentless energy sometimes feels exhausting: Creel is grinning so hard he risks facial injury, Pierce waggles his moustache to beat the band, Midler displays an endless repertoire of raised eyebrows and smirking lips.

But when it works, especially in the ensemble numbers, the show is a riotous delight. The performance of the title song – with Midler resplendent in glittering red gown and headdress – is an extravagant pleasure of swoops and whirls and high kicks.

Does the show belong on Broadway at all? This revival never makes a case for its relevance or seeks to reassess its charms. But when the orchestra plays the sprightly music and Midler steps on in each new gown and the waiters twirl their serving trays, it’s nice to have Dolly back.

Back on Broadway … Hello, Dolly!
Adorable … Midler in Hello, Dolly! Photograph: Julieta Cervantes
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