Review: ‘Hello, Dolly!’ at the Shubert Theatre
by Richard Seff on April 24, 2017
I’m going to tell you a short story before I get to my review of Hello, Dolly! which is now playing at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway. I do so to give what’s now called “transparency” to my words in praise of it. In the last days of the so-called Golden Age of musicals (circa 1962) I was a young theatrical agent specializing in the field of musical theatre, and I represented a handful of promising young composer/lyricists.
One of those I knew was Jerry Herman, whom I’d met through one of my partners who was a childhood friend of his. I did not represent him, but the large agency that did switched him to a new mentor, so he asked me to keep an eye out for a project that might land him an assignment to follow his first show Milk and Honey. That show had given him an entrée into the thriving group of young talents who were the new generation bringing vitality to the world of musical theatre. Since he thought his agency contracts were reaching their termination date, I grabbed this opportunity to search for just such an assignment.
By sheer chance I found myself seated next to librettist Michael Stewart at a card game within days of the start of my quest. I knew him, for I’d represented Chita Rivera and Dick VanDyke in his maiden effort for Broadway, Bye Bye, Birdie; and I’d had further exposure when I looked after Anna Maria Alberghetti in his next, Carnival. Stewart told me he was about to adapt Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker for producer David Merrick, and my eyes lit up when he told me that no composer had yet been set. I told him that Jerry Herman was available, and he thought that was a swell idea. He knew Jerry’s work, but had never met him. I arranged that meeting, and the two bonded immediately, so Stewart suggested him to Merrick. He got a cool response. Merrick thought Milk and Honey (Jerry’s then-currently running show) was OK, but to him the score didn’t sound like anything that would be right for the story of Dolly Gallagher Levi, whom Ruth Gordon had made memorable in the play that was to be the source of the new musical.
At Mike Stewart’s urgent insistence, Merrick asked Jerry Herman to write a couple of songs on spec that would indicate the spirit and color of this new property. The young composer, thrilled to be given this chance, took the weekend and wrote four complete numbers, played them for Merrick on the Monday, and called me from a phone booth to say “I got it! But you have to wait until next month to make a final deal because my agency contract doesn’t expire until then, so he’s agreed not to make the announcement until then.” Herman came right to our office, we opened a bottle of champagne that we’d had lying in the frig waiting to celebrate our agency’s recent opening, and toasted what we thought was to be the beginning of a beautiful business relationship.
A day later Robert Montgomery, Jerry’s attorney, called with the devastating news that his agency contract did not expire in December, but rather a year from December, so he was committed to have that agency negotiate his deal. However – and this floored us – Jerry was so happy that we’d been able to open the door that he insisted on paying us a commission on top of the one he’d be paying to the other agency. We talked, my partners and I, and though we all knew that no musical is guaranteed success, if this one were any kind of hit at all, we’d have been well compensated with half of what we’d been offered, so that was how it all went down. As it turned out, we were paid promptly each month through the years and years that the Hello, Dolly! we know and love ran on Broadway and on tour. I tell you all this because I hope you’ll understand my great fondness for the material in this lovely show which brought me and my partners such support in the development of our own careers.
All of this leads to the happy news that I entered the Shubert Theatre last night full of hope that this would not just be another revival , and two and a half hours later, I emerged into the lights of Broadway, absolutely shaking with pleasure at the remarkable show that producer Scott Rudin and his associates have brought us. I’ll get to the dazzling Ms. Midler in a moment, but everything that surrounds her is so brilliantly conceived and executed that it puts to shame almost everything else on the boards. Yes, its directorial concept belongs forever to Gower Champion who staged and choreographed it originally, but new director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle have cast it so perfectly, and tweaked it so judiciously that it lands with all the sparkle and imagination of a brand new master work.
Clearly I’m but one of thousands of fans who cherish this show, and the excitement in the audience last night was almost as palpable as that on stage. From the opening moments of the overture under the firm musical direction of Andy Einhorn, the response was electric. One began to remember that Herman’s score is not only remembered for the title song, but contains a basket full of melodic and lyrical gems like “Ribbons Down My Back”, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, “It Only Takes A Moment”, “Before The Parade Passes By” (a number which entered the score late in the show’s original out of town tryout) and the return of a number called “Penny In My Pocket” which serves co-star David Hyde Pierce, thus restoring it from the oblivion to which it was once sent.
The visuals too are worth noting. Santo Loquasto’s sets and costumes are as old fashioned as linoleum, and twice as welcome. The scenery is built and painted as in days of old, bright and comforting. The front curtain of red and gold, dazzlingly ornamented, adds to the evening’s excitement. The costumes are vivid and bold, and the use of them in production numbers is a treat.
In Kate Baldwin and Gavin Creel as the 30-Something would-be lovers, we have a return to romance, pure and simple, and we share in the great joy they display once they’ve begun to appreciate each other. Comically, Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein, (he short and bouncy, she plump and bursting with laughter) play Barnaby Tucker and Minnie Fay as two slightly deranged young people who have been deprived of much fun – until now.
Others, including a platoon of sensational dancers and Kevin Ligon as a hysterical maitre d’ in charge at the Harmonia Gardens, masterfully remind us how funny the Keystone Kops used to be – only he does it with an accent and a whistle, and they do it with eye-catching and precise balletic agility.
But let’s face it, this beautiful work heavily depends on the star quality of Dolly Gallagher Levi and her half-a-millionaire very reluctant vis-a-vis Horace Vandergelder. Never, not in the original production nor in the Pearl Bailey sensational all black version nor in the film, has there been a matched pair with more stage weight than Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce. He, best known to us as Frazier’s goofy brother Miles in the sitcom, proves here, even more than he did in the musical Curtains, that he can stand alone before the house curtain, and bring down the house with “A Penny In My Pocket”, the song that’s never worked before. His star quality is never more keenly revealed as, without benefit of scenery or book, he recounts his rise from totally broke young boy to The Merchant of Yonkers – a completely self-made man. With seemingly little effort, but with consummate skill, he is the best Horace ever, and his predecessors include such heavy hitters as Paul Ford, Walter Matthau, Cab Calloway, Billy Daniels, and Eddie Bracken.
Now we get to Bette Midler, who as Dolly is really in charge of everything and everyone. “I meddle”, she told us early on, in her opening number “I Put My Hand In”. Then, after courteously waiting for the roar that accompanied her first appearance to simmer down, she established that we were in for a terrific evening ahead in the presence of a performer who has traces of Sophie Tucker, Mae West, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman and others, distilled and aged to become the one and only Bette Midler back where she belongs – on Broadway.
All evening long she surprises us, and every gesture has thought behind it. Watch her spend five delicious minutes devouring a turkey dinner, building laughter all the way, until she literally stops the show when she’s finished. Listen to her appeal to her dead husband Ephraim Levi, with whom it’s clear she has contact rather regularly, and watch an artist turn off all comedy and replace it with the kind of technique you’d expect in the old days from the ardent practitioners of “the method” taught at the Actors’ Studio. Watch her dance daintily along with her friends, the waiters at Harmonia Gardens, who’ve gathered to welcome her back after a long absence. She can make you believe she actually knows and likes Manny and Danny and the others. Ms. Midler has found herself a role and, at 72, makes us believe she is whatever age we wish her to be.
I hope you can tell I found this lovingly mounted revival an example of how the two most glorious words in the English language remain, as mentioned in 42nd Street, “Musical Comedy.”
Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.