Well, Hello, Bette! It’s so nice to have you back where you belong. And Bette, you certainly do belong on the Broadway stage in this classic musical. It is as exacting of a fit as you can find for the Divine Miss M. It seems that when Jerry Herman (book and lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book) wrote Hello, Dolly! back in 1964, based on the 1938 Thornton Wilder farce called The Merchant of Yonkers (revised and retitled as The Matchmaker 17 years later), they must of unknowingly written the starring role, not just for Ethel Merman (who actually turned the part down, as did Mary Martin), but also for Bette Milder to conquer Broadway 53 years later. It’s one of the most perfect role/show matches made in Broadway casting heaven. Bette dominates this musical and the stage with an ease and a flick of the wrist that will forever be remembered in the Broadway history books. Not just for the box office record breaking totals being created, but for so much more. She grabs the spotlight from the moment she makes her first appearance to her last bow, exciting the audience into a mid-show standing ovation after the title song, and to wild laughter and applause for every quick witted joke and sly smile that emanates from her wee frame. She is creating something legendary on that stage, not revolutionary I will add, but this old fashioned show would be hard pressed to do that. But she does manage to supersede decades of memories of the original Dolly Gallagher Levi, the Tony winning icon, Carol Channing (click here for a video of her singing the most famous song from this show), with the joyous opening number, “I Put My Hand In” and each and every moment there after. Her performance will sit right along side Channing on that mantle that all others will be compared to in future productions.
Joining her on stage is the incredibly talented David Hyde Pierce (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, A Life), appearing to be having the most ridiculously fun time playing the object of Dolly’s transactional affection, Horace Vandergelder of Yonkers. He mugs and hilariously embodies this grumpy miser, pulling out every ounce of mirth that can be found from every moment of stage. It’s not a deep or remotely realistic portrayal by any means, but this show, as directed skillfully by Jerry Zakes (A Bronx Tale: The Musical) with spectacular choreography by Warren Carlyle (She Loves Me) isn’t trying for that kind of show. What they are giving us on the Shubert Theatre stage (where I saw A Chorus Line about 35 years ago) is a bit of vaudevillian hilarity, incorporating all the strengths of Midler and Pierce into every scene possible. The two are having so much fun that it is impossibly not to have a smile plastered from ear to ear for the entirety of this lovingly crafted quintessential Broadway show.
Rounding out this talented cast, we are blessed with the two young men from Vandergelder’s shop, the incredible Gavin Creel (She Loves Me) as the head shop clerk, Cornelius Hackl, and his side-kick, the wonderfully funny Taylor Trensch (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), as Barnaby Tucker, the much younger and easily influenced clerk. Both capture our heart in the glorious classic number, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” that starts out as a rebellious call to action by Cornelius to Barnaby, but grows into a big grand spectacle of a show-number (one of many) with set and costumes, magnificently designed by Santo Loquasto (Shuffle Along…), one stupendous bit of theatrical propmenship, and a high kicking dance troupe that doesn’t stop impressing us with their precision and energy from beginning to end. They make it all look so easy, but the intricacy is intrinsic, subtle, but very present. Overall the show feels like a salute to the classic staging by director and choreographer, Gower Champion back in 1964 at the St. James Theatre. The design and choreography all have a reminiscent feel with a spruced up modern approach layered on top, that feels as comfortable and friendly as some of these unforgettable songs, such as “It Takes a Woman” and “Before The Parade Passes By“. All deliciously rendered here.
“Put On Your Sunday Clothes” is also a call to action for the two young lovers, Ambrose Kemper (the underused Will Burton) and Ermengarde, his love and Vandergelder’s 17 year old weepy daughter (a fun but wasted Melanie Moore). Horace opposes this union because Ambrose’s vocation does not offer a secure financial future, but the couple’s desire to marry is part of Dolly’s mission and manipulation. Enlisted by Ambrose to help secure Vandergelder’s approval, she escorts the two young (but forgettable) lovers to New York City. Surprisingly, the book for Hello, Dolly! seems to actually forget (along with us) about these two and their love story by the time this silly tale wraps up in the courtroom (a hilarious bit of stage ridiculousness by Midler in this scene is exactly what this show does best). These two young actors are charming but side-lined in almost every scene they are in, as is the case with most of the logic in the storyline, but what does that matter. More central to this tale are the two shop clerks sneaking away from their responsibilities at Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed shoppe, on board the same train heading to New York City, looking for a good meal, some adventure, and to kiss a girl before returning to their quiet lives in Yonkers.
The two young ladies that become the object of their affections are quickly discovered working in a hat shop that is also about to be visited by Vandergelder. Kate Baldwin (Finian’s Rainbow, Big Fish) is delightful as the shop owner, Irene Molloy, who is looking to be married, and expecting Vandergelder, the wealthy Yonkers widow, to come a courting. She’s ready herself for a bit of adventure as shown in the adorable but discardable song “Ribbons Down My Back“. Working along side Molloy is the incredibly funny Beanie Feldstein (Broadway debut) as the Barnaby-to-Cornelius’s equivalent shopgirl assistant, Minnie Fay. She, like almost everyone else in this exciting cast, is having the time of her life playing a girl who would love to be on the receiving end of Barnaby’s New York City kiss.
But Dolly has different plans for Vandergelder and Molloy, and through her deliciously fun meddling sets up the rest of the mad-cap plots that will spin almost out of control for the remaining of the show. The plot in itself is silly and hard to believe, the coincidences and manipulations pile up like those stacks of plates in the exhilarating and exhausting dance number, “The Waiters’ Gallop” at the Harmoia Gardens Restaurant where everything will collide, except for the plates. We joyously lap it all up, waiting for the most famous of all Dolly songs. And we are not disappointed. Midler was created for this moment, or is it the other way around? Regardless, the number feels fresh and fun, while also nostalgic and honoring of a historical event in Broadway musical history. In essence, this is what the revival of Hello, Dolly! is all about. It is something old while being something new. It will not redefine Broadway or musicals for that matter, it won’t enlighten our minds about the world or personal relationships, but it will give us joy, a laugh, and a big grin. And when it all comes to an end, and everything is right in the world, we can’t help ourselves, we must stand and applaud the incredible star and this stupendous show. It’s as delicious as that turkey bone is to Dolly. Delectable and hard to put down.
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