BWW Review: Bette Midler’s The Star Attraction, But HELLO, DOLLY! is The Star
by Michael Dale Apr. 23, 2017
Yes, yes, we all know… Bette Midler is the above the title attraction and her presence is the reason the latest Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! is the season’s hottest new ticket. And she delivers. As Dolly Gallagher Levi, one of the most grandly showcased leading characters ever written for the musical stage, Midler glows with the pure joy that comes with the need to entertain as she lands schticky gags, sings with moxie, conveys lovely sincerity and leads the colorful parade proudly strutting across the Shubert stage.
That said, it must be stressed that under the care of director Jerry Zaks, a real master when it comes to bringing out the comedy in old school musical comedy, the star of the evening is Hello, Dolly!. Its reputation as a glitzy star vehicle may overshadow the fact that this is a superbly written work of bubbly fun and warm sentiment enhanced by a score full memorable melodies and smart lyrics (Jerry Herman never gets enough credit for his clever words.) shaped into songs that demand to be staged.
HELLO, DOLLY! is a wacky farce that occasionally takes a breather to remind its guests that all of the characters are just on the simple human quest of looking for love. Michael Stewart‘s expertly crafted book is adapted by Thornton Wilder‘s 1955 Broadway hit THE MATCHMAKER, which presents Dolly as an enterprising 1880s New York widow supporting herself through various professions, particularly as a matchmaker, until she decides it’s time to “rejoin the human race” and marry again.
She has her eye of one of her clients, Horace Vandergelder, the well-known half-a-millionaire who owns a hay and feed store in Yonkers. Dolly sabotages Horace’s intention to propose to the young widowed milliner, Irene Molloy and sneakily arranges for the two of them to enjoy a cozy dinner at the Harmonia Gardens, right after the handsome waiters welcome her back with a few choruses of the title song.
As for Irene Molloy, well, it just so happens that Vandergelder has a pair of employees who sneak out of the store for a day of adventure in New York, and one of them… Well, you know how these things happen in musical comedies.
In the spirit of not fixing what isn’t broken, Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle work within the frame of director/choreographer Gower Champion‘s classic original 1964 production, but the exciting, briskly paced staging is by no means a cut and paste job. Likewise, the work of set and costume designer Santo Loquasto contains reminders of the original, but that doesn’t discredit his sumptuously fun and colorful visuals. Under Natasha Katz‘s lights, there’s a positively thrilling moment when the ensemble promenades across the stage singing the pepper-upper “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” dressed in a dazzling assortment of sunny pastels.
The star quality of the cast doesn’t stop at Bette Midler. David Hyde Pierce may not be the first name to come to mind when casting the gruff and blustery Horace, but he is just perfect, giving Midler a firm foil off of which to bounce and just enough of a tender side to allow her to fall in love. During a moment of intense frustration, Pierce masterfully pulls off a classic bit of business where his upper lip broadly trembles for as long as the audience finds it funny, which can be a very long time. Their chemistry is that of a comedy team, rather than that of traditional lovers, and the audience falls in love with them as a pair.
Normally, Horace only has one song, the spirited comic turn, “It Takes A Woman,” where he describes the perfect wife as one who can preserve her painted-up femininity while performing the hard physical labor of daily maintenance chores around the house. Back in pre-Broadway tryouts of the original production, the character also closed the first act giving a history of how he made his fortune with the charming and clever “Penny In My Pocket.” The song was cut in order to give Dolly the final big moment before intermission with “Before The Parade Passes By,” but its reputation grew as one of the really fine songs dropped from a Broadway musical. “Penny In My Pocket” is now restored to the score and opens the second act, nimbly performed by Pierce to give his character a little extra depth.
As the romantically canny Irene, Kate Baldwin‘s exquisitely-voiced soprano is showcased in Herman’s lovely ballad, “Ribbons Down My Back.” She’s courted by song and dance man Gavin Creel, in a winning comic turn as Horace’s ambitious assistant, Cornelius. Joining their romantic adventures is the terrific pairing of Beanie Feldstein as Irene’s flirtatious assistant Minnie Fay and Taylor Trensch as Cornelius’ naïve co-worker Barnaby.
Last season’s DISASTER! Tony nominee Jennifer Simard is underutilized as a first act ensemble member who graduates to a second act appearance as a disastrous match for Horace, as is crusty character man Michael McCormick, who can be spotted in the ensemble before a second act scene as a judge. But that can be taken as a sign of how much stand-out talent there is throughout the company.
A parade of big name stars followed Carol Channing to allow Hello, Dolly!‘s original production to surpass MY FAIR LADY and become, for a brief time, Broadway’s longest running musical. Hopefully, this splendid revival will be showcasing many great stage stars for years to come.