New York City Theater
What is there to say? All Bette Midler has to do is lift her little finger or kick a leg or smile at everyone on stage or in the audience and, suddenly, all is right with the world. She does more than that: creating a character of a sweetly pushy dame, a Lady Bountiful at the ready to help with everything from dancing lessons to matrimony. The star of the faithful revival of “Hello, Dolly” is defining the word “lovable,” while giving a contemporary spin to as old-fashioned a musical as ever was.
Is she Dolly Gallagher Levi or Bette Midler? Actually, especially in act two when she sends the title number into the firmament, she’s a bit of both. As Dolly, she all but erases Midler. Yet, when she butts heads with Kate Baldwin or leans against the proscenium in “exhaustion,” we glimpse the Bathhouse Bette she was when entertaining at the Continental Baths or becoming the diamond-in-the-rough of her “Clams on the Half Shell Revue.”
Truth is, she’s always had that ability to inject humor into even her “serious” roles like “Beaches” or “The Rose” (an inside tribute to the latter may be found in the “Dolly” set). Our inability to define her, to put her in a category, is a good part of her vivacity and talent. That and the way she can be touching and needy makes us want to protect her, want to cuddle her, want to make sure she’s all right.
We needn’t have worried. As both Midler and Dolly, she can take good care of herself, thank you, doing the right thing by Michael Stewart’s skillful libretto, which is based on Thornton Wilder’s play, “The Matchmaker.” Her Dolly is physically pint-sized, emotionally vulnerable yet full of guile. ”I have always been a woman who arranges things,” she says, and Midler plays Dolly with fast-talking self-assuredness, even while scarfing down food with hilarious show-stopping results.
Sensational as she is, she’s not the whole enchilada. The second that overture starts, we know we’re in for good times. The audience applauds when the title tune begins, anticipating the cascade of famous Jerry Herman melodies: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Ribbons Down my Back,” “It Only Takes a Moment.”
David Hyde Pierce’s dyspeptic, mustache-twitching Horace not only matches Midler in appeal and humor, his pessimism counterbalances her optimism. Listen to his Yonkers accent, as he mangles “poifectly” and “woik.” Given “Penny in my Pocket” cut from the original production, he makes an entire backstory of the song.
The entire cast is sterling: Gavin Creel’s eager Cornelius Hackl, Kate Baldwin’s superb Irene Molloy, Taylor Trensch’s naïve Barnaby Tucker and Beanie Feldstein’s Minnie Fay are distinctive comic creations.
Warrren Carlyle’s recreation of Gower Champion’s original choreography is a just homage, while Santo Loquasto’s sets and pastel-colored costumes are freshly imagined. Scott Lehrer’s sound design deserves special mention and, if Jerry Zak’s direction is often over the top, he keeps things moving.
At the very least, this “Hello, Dolly” will help us forget North Korea’s nukes or the machinations of other would-be dictators. We have our own leader at the Shubert, carrying the banner of good will. Join the Divine Miss M “before the parade passes by.”
--David A. Rosenberg
May 5, 2017