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Hello, Dolly!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 20, 2017

Hello, Dolly! Based on the play The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder. Book by Michael Stewart. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Originally produced on the New York stage by David Merrick. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Original production directed and choreographed by Gower Champion. Scenic and costume design by Santo Loquasto. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Music supervision and direction by Andy Einhorn. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Vocal arrangements by Don Pippin. Dance arrangements by David Chase. Hair, wigs & make up design by Cambell Young Associates. Cast: Bette Midler, also starring David Hyde Pierce, featuring Gavin Creel, Kate Baldwin, Taylor Trensch, Beanie Feldstein, Will Burton, Melanie Moore, Jennifer SImard, Kevin Ligon, Cameron Adams, Phillip Attmore, Giuseppe Bausilio, Justin Bowen, Taeler Cyrus, Elizabeth Earley, Leslie Donna Flesner, Jenifer Foote, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Stephen Hanna, Michael Hartung, Robert Hartwell, Aaron Kaburick, Amanda LaMotte, Analisa Leaming, Jess LeProtto, Ian Liberto, Nathan Madden, Michael McCormick, Linda Mugleston, Hayley Podschun, Jessica Sheridan, Michaeljon Slinger, Christian Dante White, Branch Woodman, Ryan Worsing, Richard Riaz Yoder.
Theatre: Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Bette Midler
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

The real news about the slam-bang revival of Hello, Dolly! that just opened at the Shubert isn't what you think. Yes, it's Bette Midler's first-ever starring turn in a Broadway musical, and, you know what? She's darn good. (Not great.) If you can get a ticket—and that's a big if at this point—you'll discover that Midler is commanding, funny, and, when necessary, moving, and has more than the wattage needed to headline Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's quintessential musical-comedy star vehicle. But we'll come back to her. What you may need to know first is that Hello, Dolly! itself is terrific, and that director Jerry Zaks and his unassailable company have elevated it to a stratospheric level.

Although it's technically an adaptation of Thornton Wilder's 1955 play The Matchmaker, Hello, Dolly! stands on its own thanks to the keen eyes and keener writing of bookwriter Stewart and composer Herman. They took Wilder's frothy Victorian tale of screwball romance and upped both the ante and the octane to craft a show that, in many respects, is what you think of when you think of a musical. (No small achievement considering it opened in 1964, after the conclusion of Broadway's so-called Golden Age.) It's packed with colorful locales, zany characters, a four-way happy ending, and unexpected emotional heft—all buoyed by huge comedy, outstanding songs, sprawling dances, and, of course, That Number, which may as well be synonymous with "showstopper."

Yet it's also the most unconventional show to have such a conventionally sterling reputation. Dolly Gallagher Levi, who's ostensibly a matchmaker but dabbles in everything from dance classes to law, states at the outset she plans to marry Horace Vandergelder, the well-known Yonkers "half-millionaire," for his money, even as she's trying to persuade him to let his niece, Ermengarde, marry Ambrose Kemper, of whom Vandergelder does not approve. Dolly and Horace's romance is all but nonexistent, necessarily building up slowly with the plot as she hatches—and constantly rethinks—her scheme to rejoin the human race she left after the death of her beloved husband Ephraim 10 years earlier.

Across a single day, Dolly unloads Vandergelder of his current flame, milliner Irene Molloy, and sets him up with another (a low-down woman with the high-budget name of Ernestina Money) just to watch him fail and fall into her arms—all while the clerks at Vandergelder's feed shop, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, secretly head off into Manhattan, and get tangled up with Irene, her partner Minnie Fay, and Dolly's machinations. Naturally, everyone eventually ends up at the same place—the tony Harmonia Gardens restaurant on 14th Street—at the same time, leading to a maximum of confusion, collisions, and (spoiler alert?) arrests before Dolly can straighten things out.

Bette Midler and David Pierce
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

It's dopey, predictable, and perfect. This is due in no tiny part to the airtight construction of Stewart's book, which effortlessly organizes and routes the combating threads of story, the dialogue is as apt to inspire wall-rocking laughter ("Let me cut your wings," a demanding Dolly tells Vandergelder at dinner) as wrenching humanity (with Dolly frequently speaking to Ephraim, begging him for a sign that it's okay to move on with life without him).

Herman's score is more memorable still. You probably already know the infectious title song by heart. But you may have forgotten the peppy urgency of the traveling promenade, "Put On Your Sunday Clothes." Or the haunting wistfulness of Irene's "Ribbons Down My Back." The rich feeling, lightly delivered, of "It Only Takes a Moment," the one traditional ballad. The silliness of "It Takes a Woman" (wherein Vandergelder explains the role of a woman in marriage is to do the housework), or the comedically patriotic-distracting "Motherhood" or the gently satirical "Elegance" (both delightful, both rumored to have been written all or in part by Bob Merrill). Even the restless curtain-raiser, "Call on Dolly," is a trip while also being a remarkably efficient exposition-delivery device ("Just name the kind of man your sister wants and she'll snatch him up / Don't forget to bring your maiden hands and she'll match 'em up").

In addition to respecting all this, Zaks has paid a shocking amount of reverence to both the piece and the form. Changes are few; "Penny in My Pocket," a cut song for Vandergelder, is back in, the peerless curtain call medley is (inexplicably and damagingly) out. But Zaks and his top-of-his-game choreographer, Warren Carlyle, don't just slavishly recreate the iconic staging flourishes from original director-choreographer Gower Champion. If their work pays close homage to Champion (there are plenty of in-ones, the horse and the train are there), it feels completely integrated rather than choppy.

The same is true of the design, with Santo Loquasto's sets and costumes echoing earlier designs, but their picture-postcard details and cone-bursting colors entirely their own, vivid creations. Natasha Katz's lighting is sumptuous and bright, too, giving everything an effusive glow of inner happiness. The new orchestrations by Larry Hochman don't depart drastically from Philip J. Lang's charts, but despite being only a minor reduction in orchestral forces, they pop noticeably less (despite the fine efforts of musical director Andy Einhorn and his orchestra).

Beanie Feldstein, Taylor Trensch, Kate Baldwin,
and Gavin Creel
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

There is no fault to be found in any of the supporting cast members. David Hyde Piece is a gruff and amusing Vandergelder, with a deceptively soft center. Gavin Creel is a cracking Cornelius, earnest, innocent, and adventurous, and he's never sounded better than he does singing these songs. Likewise, Kate Baldwin is ideally cast as Irene, weaving her straight-on, honest performance with a few thin streaks of crazy to keep it buoyant (and superb singing that, like Irene, straddles classical and modern styles). Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein are highly appealing as Barnaby and Minnie. Will Burton and Melanie Moore do well by the rather thankless Ambrose and Ermengarde and, as is her wont, Jennifer Simard makes a 45-course meal out of her brief stage time as Ernestina.

To the extent that this Hello, Dolly! stumbles—and it isn't much—it's because Midler falls short. She's utterly convincing portraying each of Dolly's personalities (meddling busybody, ruthless Vandergelder hunter, grieving widow), and though her spin is usually bright and brash, she's not afraid to pull back and reveal her latent vulnerability, too. (This is most notable in the lead-up to the Act I finale, "Before the Parade Passes By.") And, whether steamrolling anyone in her path, or bowling over the Harmonia Gardens waitstaff (and, thus, you) with her charm in the title song, this Dolly is daffy, real, and irresistible.

What she's not, however, is locked in a life-or-death struggle for her future, and that matters. In the last Broadway revival in 1995, in which Carol Channing once again took on the role she'd created three decades earlier, this was palpable; the stakes were impossibly high, for reasons both textual and otherwise. Her every action was motivated by an insatiable hunger, plus the inviolable understanding that her time was running out. This made the sad moments unbearable, the happier scenes overwhelming, and the jokes revolutionary in their hilarity. Midler doesn't go that far—she plays it safe, and, despite getting the maximum amount possible from that approach, doesn't get everything. She may be a gleaming star, but she's not a transformative one.

Other rough edges stem from her lack of discipline or experience. Midler plays to the audience, complete with "takes," far too often, momentarily dislodging you from Stewart, Herman, and Zaks's world. She gets visibly winded during the dance numbers, and calling attention to that with a gag during the title song is not wise. Perhaps most troubling: her voice is already starting to sound ragged, something that shouldn't be the case after only five weeks of previews. Much of this can, and hopefully will, be corrected as Midler continues her run, and Donna Murphy comes aboard in June to play Dolly once a week.

Ultimately, these are minor quibbles that don't detract from Midler's marvelous performance as part of a marvelous evening. At the very least, when she traipses down the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens near the middle of Act II, wearing that gaudy red dress with the heart and the feathered headdress, and begins cooing those historic lyrics, "Hello, Harry / Well hello, Louie / It's so nice to be back be home where I belong," you won't care about what doesn't work because of how much does. "Hello, Dolly!" is a prime example, an explosion of life and joy, of coming into one's own again after regaining lost hope.

"Dolly'll never go away again," the waiters conclude a few minutes later. They're right. Not just because Midler and everything surrounding her will stick in your mind for years, or decades, to come—though they will. But because the best shows, which tap into the most of who we are and explore the complexities and contradictions we don't always understand ourselves, never go out of style. And Hello, Dolly! is about as good as the Broadway musical gets.


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