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Hello And Welcome Back, Dolly!
By Greg Allen
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
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As the commercial says, years from now there will be those that saw Bette Midler in Hello Dolly! on Broadway and those that say they did. I am SO lucky to be one of those that will be able to say I saw her. What a night! What a production. The 1964 multi-Tony Award winning musical (synonymous with Carol Channing) was revived in 1975 with an all black cast starring Pearl Bailey and then Carol Channing returned to the staircase in 1995. But this 2017 production feels fresh and new – even though it’s an old-fashioned musical. It has already set records (before opening) with more than $40 million in advance ticket sales. And one of the biggest reasons for that is summed up in two words: Bette Midler.
Ms. Midler has turned this iconic role of Dolly Levi into her own. It’s part what’s on the paper in Michael Stewart’s book of the lovable, meddling matchmaker trying to find romance for several people…including herself – but it’s also part Bette on that stage. Adorable. Charming. Sassy. Sexy. All at the age of 71! (PS: She isn’t the oldest to play the role as Carol was 74 in the 1995 production.) But it seems Ms. Midler hasn’t aged. I’ve seen her in concert and all that love and warmth (and bawdiness) she conveys in concert plays beautifully in the Shubert Theatre which holds just under 1500 people.
She is a joy from the moment she enters. Speaking fast to confuse her potential clients, lifting her dresses to show her fancy footwork, tenderly speaking to her dearly departed former husband, and that voice – that voice which is half rasp/half silk…it’s all there for the audience to eat up and we do. Hearing her sing these Jerry Herman classics such as “Before The Parade Passes By”, “Dancing”, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” is sweet music to our ears. I can’t recall hearing the roars of cheers as I witnessed in this theater…and I’ve seen many a legend in Broadway shows. When she finishes the title song in that infamous red dress, the audience rose to their feet welcoming Dolly back to the Harmonia Gardens and Bette back to Broadway! She made her debut in ’67 in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof and while she’s done some of her concerts and a play back in 2013 on Broadway, this return to her musical roots is glorious and appreciated by every single person in the audience.
So it’s Ms. Midler that brings them in, but the entire company and every creative person involved deserves just as much kudos. This production is truly a wonderful production of the old chestnut. Jerry Zaks is known for directing broad comedies and he has put his own touch on this production; stepping away from some of the standard ways we’ve seen past productions. The pacing reminds me of Lend Me A Tenor and he allows the actors to explore these characters in new and exciting ways. I found it refreshing. Starting with casting David Hyde Pierce as half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder – what a plumb role for this man and he does it masterfully. His comic timing is impeccable. He is not simply a grumpy old man, but exasperated while still lovable.
Gavin Creel is a perfect Cornelius…the energy, the persona, and that voice! I’ve never heard “Ribbons Down My Back” sung so well as by Kate Baldwin. Her Irene Molloy has more “umpf” to her than those that have come before her. Taylor Trensch is a wonderful ying to Creel’s yang as Barnaby. And Beanie Feldstein gives a Broadway debut as Minnie Fay that is scrumptious! Will Burton, Melanie Moore, and Jennifer Simard are all delightful in their roles bringing the right amount of comedy. And that ensemble…those waiters…they make the Shubert stage seem much larger than it is dancing Warren Carlyle’s choreography. I honestly can’t find one thing that I would nitpick about this production. Santo Loquasto‘s set and costumes, Natasha Katz lighting, Scott Lehrer’s sound design – all brilliant and leaves us with a huge smile on our faces. Sometimes we simply need a musical comedy to make us leave the theater on a high. Jerry Herman’s score and Michael Stewart’s book of this funny and heartwarming musical does just that. (Plus the wonderful orchestrations by Larry Hochman – I forgot how much I love everything he does with counter melodies in this score.)
I’ve seen numerous regional and dinner theater productions of this show, but I’ve never seen it on Broadway. To see it at the Shubert where I saw my first Broadway musical in the summer of ’84 made it all that more special. Leaving the theater after Dolly, my friend said that her heart was full and I can’t agree more. That’s the power of amazing live theater. That’s the joy of a Herman score. That’s the euphoria of seeing a living legend giving her all, surrounded by a company that realizes they are all part of something truly magical. We feel it. We know it. We ‘get’ it. Thank you to the smart producers that knew Broadway needed this comedy back where it belongs.
I’d say get a ticket if you’re in the area, but honestly…I’m not sure you can. I bought mine the morning they went on sale. Smartest thing I ever did.
Thank you to this incredible cast for giving me a night I’ll never forget.