There are moments in Bette Midler’s Hello, Dolly that offer unsurpassed entertainment, demonstrating the ideal match between show and star that many people expected when they first heard that Midler would be the 15th Dolly Gallagher Levi on Broadway. That excitement (along with outrageously inflated ticket prices) resulted in the highest advance sale of any show in Broadway history.
There are not enough of those perfect moments, however, to justify the ardor for this unexceptional, pastel-hued fourth Broadway revival, nor to explain fully the exuberant acclaim for its star, who has not performed live as a character in a Broadway musical for 50 years. (She played a daughter in the original Fiddler on the Roof!) The reaction to Bette Midler in “Hello, Dolly” is a sociological phenomenon that transcends what occurs on stage.
I understand it. I’ve idolized Midler since first hearing her debut album, “The Divine Miss M,” and discovering this sassy songstress with a gorgeous voice, delivering retro sultriness with a persona simultaneously self-mocking, sexy and sincere.
That voice is gone now, judging from the performance I attended at the Shubert, replaced by a rasp of limited range. She also apparently can’t really dance; her movement on stage is more like rhythmic walking, and it’s in bracing contrast to the professional dancers who are virtually flying around her.
What remains vibrant is the Bette Midler persona, evident from the moment she makes her entrance on stage. It is not a grand entrance, at least not initially; it’s a sly surprise entrance. A “horse”-driven bus (actually two guys in a horse suit) comes on stage with a group of passengers reading newspapers that obscure their faces. One of them abruptly snatches the paper down; it’s Bette Midler. The audience greets her thunderously. She walks forward, first lifting her arms out in a diva welcome, then placing her palm against her chest, as if to say “your reception is giving me heart palpitations.” She is playfully portraying somebody who would make a gesture like that, but she’s also sincerely making the gesture.
This is not Dolly Levi Gallagher’s gesture, a widow in late 19th century New York who works as a matchmaker and anything else that might make her a buck. It belongs to Bette Midler, or more precisely to the Bette Midler persona. The audience is responding not to Dolly but to Bette – and to our memories of the Divine Miss M. I am not dismissing those memories. In live theater, the adoration of the audience can palpably lift up a performer and a production, a gift of energy that is passed back and forth between audience and actors.
There are moments, though, when this “Hello, Dolly” is not just the Bette Midler show, or at least when she shares billing with her character. “Some people paint,” she says at one point. “Some sew. I…meddle.”
It’s delivered as a classic Bette wisecrack, with that mischievous grin and the practiced inflection of Jewish housewife as Borscht Belt comic. Suddenly, somehow, Dolly is Bette, and so Bette is Dolly.
And meddle she does. (They do?) Dolly has been looking for a wife for the “half-millionaire” Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder (David Hyde Pierce), and has decided that that wife should be herself. This means she must sabotage his planned proposal to New York milliner Irene Malloy (Kate Baldwin.) Dolly does this by arranging for Horace’s two assistants Cornelius (Gavin Creel) and Barnaby (Taylor Trensch) to woo (respectively) Irene and her assistant Minnie Fay (Beanie Feldstein, making a memorable Broadway debut.) Dolly is also busy scheming to prod Horace into reversing his adamant opposition of nuptials between his niece Ermengarde (Melanie Moore) and Ambrose (Will Burton) because of Ambrose’s disreputable career – he’s an artist. Is it a spoiler to reveal that love – or at least Dolly – triumphs?
Most of the supporting cast is at least competent; both Creel and Baldwin have voices to die for. Pierce feels miscast: His grumpy Horace is so off-putting that Dolly couldn’t desire him for anything but his money, which changes what we think of her. (That presumes, of course, that we think anything of the characters, as opposed to the performers.) The real heavy-lifting — sometimes literally — is done by the vigorously athletic, inexhaustible and sometimes exhausting ensemble.
The plot is book-writer Michael Stewart and songwriter Jerry Herman’s adaptation of a play by Thornton Wilder, who adapted it from an earlier play of his, which was an adaptation of a German play that was in turn adapted from an 1835 English play. It is, in other words, almost two centuries old; it’s hardly an insult to call it old-fashioned. Director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle seem happy to keep it that way. Santo Loquasto, whose past innovative stage and costume designs have garnered many awards, here opts for familiar postcard-looking backdrops, and blindingly bright pastel costumes, as if imagining what the stereotypical tourist would have worn had they existed at the turn of the 20th century. They all seem to be acknowledging that their job is to preserve the vehicle. “Hello, Dolly” has always served as a vehicle for its star – originally and most notably (and most repeatedly) Carol Channing, but also Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, Phyllis Diller, et al. Each has tried to own the part; some merely rented it.
Bette does own Dolly, but Dolly doesn’t always live in Bette; the melding of the two is only periodic. It fails conclusively during Dolly’s conversations with her dead husband Ephraim, which are played as straightforwardly sincere, without an overlay of the Divine Miss M’s self-mockery, and paradoxically came off to me as insincere. She also disappoints in “Before the Parade Passes By,” one of the four or five supremely tuneful songs in Jerry Herman’s score.
Where Midler shines is in comedy. This was evident even in The Rose. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in that serious 1979 film as a self-destructive rock star, but it was the brief comic scene of her crashing a gay bathhouse that is the most memorable. It’s her 1980’s movie comedies that thrust her into the mainstream, and her campy revues that perfected her comic persona and cemented her adulation by her long-time (heavily gay) fans. Comic verve is one talent that can actually improve with age.
Where Bette Midler reaches something close to perfection in “Hello,Dolly” is in two show-stopping scenes that couldn’t be more different. There’s the over-the-top “Hello, Dolly” number at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, where she descends the stairs in a gown of screaming red sequins and baubles and a crown of red plumes — a vision of glamour, yes, but somehow a comic vision of glamour. It’s the number most audience members are likely to agree with the hyper waitstaff as they sing:
Oh, hello Dolly, well, hello Dolly
It’s so nice to have you back where you belong
And then there is the odd scene near the end in a courtroom, where she is eating a meal. (I must have missed the explanation for this.) She dips a turkey leg into a gravy boat, but that’s not enough. She dips her fingers into the gravy, but that’s not enough. Oh, what the hell, she lifts the gravy boat up to her mouth and just drinks the whole thing. Her meal stops the show, literally. “Hello, Dolly” grinds to a halt, the entire cast on stage watching her eat. It’s like a scene from another show – Beckett? Carol Burnett? It might or might not be Dolly, but it’s all Bette, and it’s hilarious.
Book by Michael Stewart, based on “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder; Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreography by Warren Carlyle; set and costume design by Santo Loquasto. Lighting design by Natasha Katz, sound design by Scott Lehrer.
Cast Bette Midler, David Hyde Pierce, Donna Murphy (at certain performances), Gavin Creel, Kate Baldwin, Taylor Trensch, Will Burton, Melanie Moore, Jennifer Simard, Cameron Adams, Phillip Attmore, Giuseppe Bausilio, Justin Bowen, Elizabeth Earley, Taeler Elyse Cyrus, Leslie Donna Flesner, Jenifer Foote, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Stephen Hanna, Michael Hartung, Robert Hartwell, Amanda LaMotte, Analisa Leaming, Jess LeProtto, Ian Liberto, Kevin Ligon, Nathan Madden, Michael McCormick, Linda Mugleston, Hayley Podschun, Jessica Sheridan, Michaeljon Slinger, Christian Dante White, Branch Woodman, Ryan Worsing and Richard Riaz Yoder
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes including one intermission.
Tickets: $59.00 (fat chance) to $229.00
It is worth noting that on Tuesdays beginning June 13, 2017, the role of Dolly Levi will be played by Donna Murphy. Donna Murphy will also perform the role of Dolly Levi on June 27 – July 2, July 5 – 9, Sunday evening – July 30, September 6 – 10, Sunday evening – October 15, Monday evening – October 30, November 1 – 5, Friday – November 24 @ 2pm, and Sunday evening – January 7.
“Hello, Dolly” is scheduled to run through January 14, 2018