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My review of HELLO, DOLLY!: Bette Midler's matchmaker carries on before the parade passes her by
Last Edit: jesse21 01:30 pm EDT 04/20/17
Posted by: jesse21 01:21 pm EDT 04/20/17

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Bette Midler’s return to Broadway as Dolly Gallagher Levi is selling out the Shubert Theatre where Hello, Dolly! opens tonight, but the star who shines brightest is Gower Champion.

The director-choreographer of the 1964 original production is being celebrated in this expensive revival with a restoration of his work, thanks to veteran director Jerry Zaks and, especially, to Warren Carlyle who won a Tony in 2014 for his own choreography on After Midnight.

Mr. Carlyle and his nimble company of ace dancers hark back to Mr. Champion’s masterpiece where from the very beginning he established a fanciful style of how we might imagine people in the New York of 1885 moved about, that is, up and down on the balls of their feet. The steps seem to be based on images from early flickers and immediately succeed in making “Dolly” airborne.

From that base, in number after number right through to the famed title song in the second act, Mr. Champion created some of the best dances ever seen on Broadway, the kind of choreography that buoys your spirits, practically lifts you out of your seat into musical comedy heaven, so good that you might find you are restraining yourself from getting into the aisle yourself to waltz, polka or tango.

Of course, Mr. Champion would never have achieved any of this if he didn’t have the goods to work with. Jerry Herman’s exceptionally tuneful score and Michael Stewart’s masterly book based on Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker. are models of Golden Age musical comedy.

By this point though, you may wonder “Well, what about Bette Midler?” I was afraid you’d ask. Just by being there live on stage, The Divine Miss M radiates the warmth under the sass that has made her such an endearing star for over four decades. She can still frisk about the stage and, of course, hit the notes even if Mr. Herman’s songs don’t suit her inimitable style all that well.

But, even at a late press preview, you feel that she is playing Dolly Levi by rote the way the role is “supposed to be performed” if you are paying tribute to the original production. Never did I feel that she inhabited Dolly from within or made Dolly her own. The unfortunate upshot is that Ms. Midler’s comic timing is way off.

One of the first Broadway musicals I saw was the original production. I was so taken with it, I caught it two more times and I also saw the 1995 revival. All four performances starred Carol Channing. I have never seen another actress portray Dolly (except for Barbra Streisand in the movie) until now. I do regret having missed Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman.

That original production made such an impression that, when watching the current revival the other night, one eye and ear were absorbing what was on stage while the other set was visualizing the original production. Back then, Carol Channing was in her early 40s and needed a comeback after her first career as Lorelei Lee began to fizzle. Her initial Dolly was fresh as a daisy and not the mummified Dolly Levi that would become her second career for decades forward.

Ms. Midler is channeling the same bits of business but they don’t seem natural. For example, it seems robotic when she extends one arm and says “Horace,you go your way” and then extends the other arm in the same direction to say “and I’ll go mine.” Or, with the shtick in the courtroom scene where Dolly devourers an inordinate amount of food, Ms. Channing with the flair of an expert comedienne stretched the routine out and made it funnier and funnier as it progressed. Ms. Midler is not able to sustain the humor.

If the people behind the current revival were out to replicate the original, I wish they had gone all the way and recreated Oliver Smith’s sets and Freddy Wittop’s costumes, to this day some of the best design work I’ve ever seen in the theater. The scenery and costumes in this revival are designed by Santo Loquasto. He employs similar versions of the three large scenic elements and the manner in which they move into position: Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed Store in Yonkers, Irene Molloy’s Hat Shop and the Harmonia Gardens. But whereas Mr. Smith’s designs were elegant and included Currier & Ives-style drawings in sepia on roman shades that rolled up and down for scene changes, Mr. Loquasto’s designs are nowhere as attractive. Instead of the roman shades, he uses scrims on which are projected rather realistic paintings of old New York and Yonkers. And his costumes are garish compared to what Mr. Wittop designed, most unfortunately in two scenes. Mr. Wittop used pale pastels of various colors for the women dancers in “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.” Those dresses positively flowed over the famous runway that surrounds the orchestra pit. Mr. Loquasto substitutes an array of deeply saturated colors for his costumes that don’t move with the dancers all that well and make this number much lesser in the revival than it was in the original. And those bottle-green waiter uniforms in the title number that contrasted so iconically with Dolly’s red gown are now replaced with some ordinary looking uniforms. Oh, and yes, Ms. Midler’s red gown and headdress are overembellished to boot.

So, do I think anything is better in this revival than in the original? I do and it is David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder. If Ms. Midler was asked to channel Carol Channing, then he was asked to channel the original David Burns. He does so by mimicking the accent and gruff inflections, but he also creates a more interesting, fuller character than even the estimable Mr. Burns did. Plus he gets to sing an extra song that was cut in the pre-Broadway tryout, “Penny in My Pocket,” at the top of the second act. The song is definitely one of the lesser ones but Mr. Piece spins it into a sheer delight.

The other players are generally not so good. It is hard to believe the handsome Gavin Creel as Vandergelder’s 33-year-old clerk Cornelius Hackl when he says he “never kissed a girl” or that he has stayed in a job that is described as near servitude. He sings and moves well but is so bland whereas Cornelius ought to be idiosyncratic like the young Charles Nelson Reilly in the original cast. And, surprising to me, a rather flat Kate Baldwin as Irene Molloy, Cornelius’s romantic interest, doesn’t have anywhere near the zest Eileen Brennan brought to the original production. The short and young Taylor Trensch (Alex Sharp’s alternate in “Curious Incident”) is fine as the 17-year-old Barnaby Tucker, Cornelius’s assistant. However the two best supporting performances are by newcomer Beanie Feldstein, a spirited Minnie Fay who partners Barnaby, and by Jennifer Simard who broadly, but effectively, plays Ernestina, the chubby lady Dolly sets Horace up with at the Harmonia Gardens.

I had my ups and downs watching this “Dolly.” The title song and the dancing on that runway were as thrilling as ever. This was an instance where Bette Midler did not disappoint. “Hello, Dolly!” received a mid-show standing ovation and “The Waiters’ Gallop” before it also stopped the show. With that title number, it’s not surprising that “Dolly” once held the record as Broadway’s longest-running musical with 2,844 performances (now down to the #19 position). By the way, road versions of the original production returned to Broadway three times for short runs: 1975 (Pearl Bailey), 1978 and 1995 (both with Carol Channing). This revival is Broadway’s first new production.

But my downs surfaced from from time to time, especially during the last scenes after everybody leaves the Harmonia Gardens. Popular entertainment does indeed belong in its place and in its time. I left not so sure that “Dolly'll never go away again.”


★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

- Jesse









MUSICAL NUMBERS:

Act I

Overture (newly orchestrated) -- Orchestra
“I Put My Hand In” -- Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi (Bette Midler) and Company
“It Takes A Woman” -- Horace Vandergelder (David Hyde Pierce) and The Instant Glee Club
“Put On Your Sunday Clothes” -- Cornelius Hackl (Gavin Creel), Barnaby Tucker (Taylor Trensch), Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi, Ambrose Kemper (Will Burton) and Ermengarde (Melanie Moore)
“Put On Your Sunday Clothes” -- The People of Yonkers
“Ribbons Down My Back” -- Irene Molloy (Kate Baldwin)
“Motherhood” -- Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi, Horace Vandergelder, Irene Molloy, Minnie Fay (Beanie Feldstein), Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker
“Dancing” -- Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi, Cornelius Hackl, Barnaby Tucker, Minnie Fay, Irene Molloy and Dancers
“Before the Parade Passes By” -- Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi and Company

ACT II

Entr'acte - Orchestra
“Penny in My Pocket” -- Horace Vandergelder
“Elegance” -- Irene Molloy, Cornelius Hackl, Minnie Fay and Barnaby Tucker
“The Waiters' Galop” -- Rudolph (Kevin Ligon) and Waiters
“Hello, Dolly!” -- Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi, Rudolph, Waiters and Cooks
“The Contest” -- Ambrose Kemper, Ermengarde, Irene Molloy, Cornelius Hackl, Minnie Fay, Barnaby Tucker and the Contestants
“It Only Takes a Moment” -- Cornelius Hackl, Irene Molloy, Prisoners and Policeman
“So Long Dearie” -- Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi
“Hello, Dolly!” -- Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi and Horace Vandergelder
Finale -- Company







SIDEBAR:

  • Photos: Bette Midler (2) as Dolly Levi.


  • Video: Bette Midler interviewed by Willie Geist on NBC’s “Today Show” last December (Time: 6:30).


  • Meet the Cast: bios.


  • Article: Broadway belongs to Bette and her Dolly! by Baz Bamigboye, The Daily Mail, 4-13-2017.


  • Article: Bette Midler busy amid Broadway return in ‘Hello, Dolly!’ by Joseph V. Amodio, Newsday, 4-11-2017.


  • Article and photos: Well, Hello, Dollys! by Eric Grode, The New York Times, 3-22-2017.









  • HELLO, DOLLY! opens Thursday, April 20, 2017, at the Sam S. Schubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street, New York City. Running time 2½ hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Act I: 72 minutes. Act II: 60 minutes. Open-ended engagement. Tickets currently on sale through January 14, 2018. Link to website.






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