NEW YORK – “Hello, Dolly!” first opened with Carol Channing in the leading role and in 1964 it relighted that New York theatrical season.
Now, 53 years later, Bette Midler is in a revival of “Hello, Dolly!” It once again has ignited the Broadway season. Inside the Shubert Theatre on West 44th Street, audiences are not only applauding, but even cheering at this delightful comic musical from that golden era.
Ms. Midler is responsible for most of the excitement on the stage, and the old-fashioned footlighted runway that circles the orchestra pit and gives it a special cachet and an extra fillip of another world of fun. “Hello, Dolly” is the show of Ms. Midler’s lifetime, the b-i-g one for this b-i-g star.
In elegant costumes designed by Santo Loquasto in the startling colors of the 1890s, and with hats framing her blonde-wigged hair, she makes this Dolly her own. She is the centerpiece of the evening, singing, dancing, eating, winking and striding around New York and Yonkers in elegant décor also provided by Mr. Loquasto. Ms. Midler, at 71, looks luminescent, especially with the pink pin spotlights bathing her from designer Natasha Katz's lighting palate.
As Dolly Gallagher Levi, the slick and tricky lady in this musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play, “The Matchmaker,” Ms. Midler sails serenely through the evening in a performance so spectacular that she brings the audience to their feet time and time again. Her singing voice is comfortably below the staff, when in her early career it used to float high above it. You could say her octave has taken a leap downward, but it doesn't hurt her fine renditions of Jerry Herman's delightful score.
This is a combination of the old and the new Midler; a sophisticated successor to her concert and solo shows and her funny movie roles in which easy laughs were her best friends. Here, she commands the stage with a different, cool, droll performance and never, in two and a half hours, lets down the audience. She acts as a comedienne, a farceuse, the new Duse of song and dance. She reminds you of old-time stars like Ms. Channing, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin and Pearl Bailey – all of whom played Dolly on Broadway or in London.
Ms. Midler brings her own style to the show with that twinkle in her eye. One of the show's delights is in Act II when she walks down a flight of stairs at the Harmonia Garden Restaurant, dances with all the waiters and parades the runway triumphantly while the waiters sing “Hello, Dolly” to her.
Meanwhile, she plots the entrapment of Horace Vandergelder (David Hyde Pierce), the half-a-millionaire merchant of Yonkers. Mr. Pierce looks nothing like his mildly charming TV character on “Frasier.” Now with a new hairdo and sideburns, he is a middle-aged codger and as funny as Ms. Midler is, and is just as great an artist in the broadest kind of comedy. He growls and glowers through the show as the miserly, miserable Vandergelder. He employs matchmaker Dolly Levi to get him a rich wife, but ends up engaged to Dolly, who has her eye more on Vandergelder’s cash register. Ms. Midler and Mr. Pierce turn out to be an ideal team of moonstruck comic actors while she mocks and he bellows.
Gavin Creel is in fine fettle as Vandergelder’s 33-year-old bachelor clerk, while his funny assistant clerk, Barnaby Tucker (Taylor Trensch), seems a bit bewildered by all the comic shenanigans of Mr. Wilder's farce.
Kate Baldwin is just right as Irene Molloy, a pretty young widow with a glorious voice, who Dolly originally thinks might make a good wife for Vandergelder. There is also Vandergelder's weeping niece Ermengarde (Melanie Moore), who Vandergelder refuses to allow to marry Ambrose Kemper (Will Burton), an impoverished young artist.
Although the original “Hello, Dolly!” director-choreographer Gower Champion died in 1980, his style and flavor are all over this new Dolly. Jerry Zaks, as this production’s director, and Warren Carlyle as its choreographer have really recreated the feel of that landmark production and both infuse it all with a modern beat that keeps every number alkaline. The show swoops along at their pace, which is rapid, and its fun makes this all joyous entertainment. “Hello Dolly!” is still a salient experience that towers above all others, and most of all makes a new musical comedy star out of Bette Midler.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.