Bette Midler — back where belongs, on Broadway in ‘Hello, Dolly!’
So, it is no wonder that she, in Jerry Herman’s classic “Hello, Dolly!” is this season’s “Hamilton” — the can’t-get-a-ticket phenomenon of the year. They are going to have to establish a whole new category for Bette! I say, let’s run Miss Midler for president in 2020.
THERE ARE opening nights, great, grand opening nights, and then there are supernova events, such as what happened at the Shubert Theatre last Thursday evening.
For weeks, months, really, the very thought of Midler — who has never starred in a Broadway musical — going through her paces as Dolly Gallagher Levi, has consumed the minds and hearts of Bette’s fans and Broadway mavens.
How would she look? How would she sound? How would she compare to the one and only Carol Channing, to Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Eve Arden, Dorothy Lamour, Phyllis Diller (yes, and they were all quite good!)
Or to Barbra Streisand, whose deliciously surreal miscasting in the film version is the Dolly many people today most associate with the role.
So I am thrilled to report — and nobody should be surprised — that Bette looks great, sounds wonderful and is incomparable. She is Bette Midler, and from the moment she appears onstage, a tiny vibrant dynamo, she makes Dolly Levi her own.
It’s fitting that Midler has made her Broadway musical debut in “Dolly!” (OK, sticklers, she played Tzeitel in the original run of “Fiddler on the Roof,” but it didn’t make her a star.) For all the “flash and trash” of her early image, the pomposity — pricking, cleavage-shaking Divine Miss M, Bette’s always been a classicist, a sentimental romantic, most comfortable wrapped in the standards of her youth, and music that flowered before she was born (her searing turn as a rocker in “The Rose” notwithstanding).
“Hello, Dolly!” — based on Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play “The Matchmaker” and sweetly nostalgic in 1964 — with its bustles, bows and uncomplicated emotional center, has just been waiting for Bette.
Not that there is anything uncomplicated about Midler’s performance. Dolly Levi is all sass and brass, the fast-talking buttinsky, looking to make the “right” kind of marriage for those around her, and for herself, too. Married for love, and widowed, she’s looking for a man of means to spend the second part of her life with — Horace Vandergelder (here played by an endearingly grumpy David Hyde Pierce). But before Dolly can turn on the battering ram of her charm and persistence, she needs a sign from her late hubby, Ephraim. Of course, she gets it.
It is a graceful tenderness that Midler imparts to Dolly that is so appealing; the catch in her throat, the eternally piquant face, half amused, half sad, naughty but very nice indeed. (At her best, Midler has always been a tragedian dressed as a clown.) All this elevates her Dolly to a class of its own, something embracing and heartily warm. This artistry would be appreciated, HAS been appreciated, for years. But coming as it does right now, live on stage, communicating to thousands every night, Bette Midler is not simply performing as an actress at her best, she is literally a healing force, performing a public service. You just can’t get up and leave this show feeling bad, being worried; for two hours reality has stopped.
All that matters is Bette/Dolly parading down the grand staircase at the Harmonia Gardens, “back where she belongs” — to shimmy those oft-shimmied shoulders and give a glimpse of her famously shapely gams, “look at the old girl now, fellas!”
We came, we looked; she conquered. Bette Midler, Broadway belongs to you.
I AM equally thrilled to report that everything that surrounds Bette Midler is superlative. Elegant staging, dazzling dance numbers, eye-popping colorful and beautifully designed costumes. This has been wonderfully directed by Jerry Zaks, and choreographed excitingly by Warren Carlyle. Of course, much of the original, beloved Gower Champion choreography remains, and the opening night audience cheered every single familiar high kick, or sweeping gesture. I’ve never thought, despite the phenomenal success of “Dolly,” that this was Jerry Herman’s most imaginative score. But hearing it again onstage, it is so sweetly appropriate and infectious. Every lyric came back to me — and to the entire, rapturous audience as well, who were practically singing along!
As mentioned above, David Hyde Pierce makes Horace Vandergelder not the world’s worst curmudgeon, and even somewhat loveable and worthy of the lively and intelligent Dolly. He shines in his big Act 2 number “Penny in My Pocket.” There’s not a false performance anywhere. Gavin Creel and Taylor Trensch are amusing and attractive as that hapless pair, Cornelius and Barnaby. Jennifer Simard is a hoot as the coarse Ernestina, whom Dolly un-seriously tosses at Horace.
But it is Kate Baldwin who makes it a close second to the magic of Midler. Baldwin plays the alluring shopkeeper Irene Molloy. She is exciting to look at when she’s doing nothing. When she does something, it’s really exciting, and she is given what is arguably the show’s prettiest song, “Ribbons Down My Back.” When Baldwin took her bow during the curtain calls, there were plenty of “bravas” for her.
I left the Shubert on a cloud of goodwill toward all, and adoration for Bette Midler. The former feeling is already dimming, the latter, never will.
It’s always thrilling to witness theater history. That’s what the current production of “Hello, Dolly!” is.
So, do what you have to do and get yourself some history. As long as murder or mayhem is not involved, we won’t be judgy about how you acquire your tickets. Just do it, and see a legend at her best and a show that sparkles as if it had just been written and scored.
Oh, again, Bette Midler for president!