|Bette Midler in the iconic title song from Hello, Dolly!|
They just don't make them like this anymore. That old adage applies to both Hello, Dolly!, the Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart penned musical currently being revived at the Shubert Theatre, and most especially to star Bette Midler, appearing in a Broadway musical for the first time in 50 years. Midler possesses a luminous star quality the likes of which few performers can equal, and exudes it so naturally and effortlessly that she appear to glow from within. In the title role of this first class revival, Midler delivers the sort of legendary star turn that will be remembered for years to come, a must see theatrical event that has already set tongues wagging and ticket prices soaring. And Midler is worth every cent.
The plot of Hello, Dolly! finds professional matchmaker (and dance instructor, and makeup consultant, and a host of other eclectic professions) Dolly Gallagher Levi looking for a suitable wife for the well known "half a millionaire" Horace Vandergelder. Throughout the course of one extremely busy day, Dolly's meddling manages to find suitable mates for Vandergelder's niece Ermengarde, his shop attendants Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, and last but not least Dolly herself. In all honesty, the farcical plot is of secondary importance to Herman's immortal songs and Midler's performance, and falls apart upon closer inspection. But you'll be far too entertained by Midler and the rest of this sparkling production to care.
It cannot be overstated how much Midler brings to the title role, so long associated with original star and theatrical icon Carol Channing. The award-winning actress and recording artist has such mastery over the show's particular brand of comedy that she elicits belly laughs with the merest gesture or change in inflection. A spritely presence with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, Midler sends an electric energy over the footlights and into the rafters, demanding your full attention lest you miss whatever piece of comic genius she has cooked up next.
Midler is so good that one of the highlights of the show involves neither dialogue nor music, but watching the Divine Miss M (as her fans have dubbed her) devour a turkey leg, some dumplings, and a boat a gravy. The specificity of intention and attention to detail sells this and every other moment of Midler's performance, which feels both tightly honed and spontaneous all at once. Just when you think you've seen every trick in her arsenal Midler produces a new one, including genuine pathos in her conversations with her dearly departed husband, Ephram. These moments provide a level of emotional stakes to the piece that is unexpected yet wholly welcome, grounding the show and Dolly before switching back to side splitting musical shenanigans.
Midler's performance would be worth the price of admission alone, making the fact that the rest of the production is such a joy feel like a bonus. Director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle have polished this old warhorse of a show to a brilliant shine, embracing the piece's old fashioned charms rather than trying to dress them up with modern bells and whistles. Santo Loquasto's sets are the kind of beautifully painted, stylized backdrops that haven't been seen on Broadway in years, demonstrating that for all the technological razzle dazzle of projections the old ways of doing things remain surprisingly effective. When Midler makes her entrance in a carriage drawn by a "horse" that is clearly two dancers inside of a costume, the old fashioned stagecraft makes the moment more memorable, not less. (And the way Midler graciously acknowledges the thunderous applause which greets her while staying in character is yet another testament to her unparalleled professionalism.)
Loquasto has also designed jaw droppingly gorgeous costumes, a pastel potpourri resplendent in detail and tailored to perfection. They are so entrancing that "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" becomes a breathtaking showstopper despite the fact it is literally just a parade of costumes. His staging for songs such as this and the opening "I Put My Hand In" shows that Carlyle knows the value of precise, minimalist movement, but he's also more than capable of having the ensemble leap and twirl their way through big productions like the appropriately titled "Dancing" or "The Waiters' Galop." Zaks keeps just as tight a handle on the book scenes, giving the production such buoyancy and pep that it flies along and ends far before you want it to.
And while Midler's performance is the headlining attraction, her costars are all first rate. David Hyde Pierce, decked out in mutton chops and an authentic Yonkers accent, is delightful as the cantankerous Vandergelder, particularly during his Act II opener "Penny In My Pocket." As Cornelius and Barnaby respectively, Gavin Creel and Taylor Trensch are a riot, clowning around in high fashion during their small town clerks' big city adventures (rarely has the word "pudding" been so hilarious). Kate Baldwin sings like a dream and mugs with the best of them as hatshop owner and object of Cornelius' affections Irene Malloy, and newcomer Beanie Feldstein is equally winsome as her assistant Minnie Fay. So deep is this production's roster of talent that they landed Tony-nominee Jennifer Simard for a side splitting single scene turn as Ernestina, Vandergelder's crass date to the fanciest restaurant in town.
Simply put, this is as good a production of Hello, Dolly! as you are ever likely to see, an unadulterated delight from start to finish. Everything about this loving tribute to Broadway's Golden Age is done at the highest possible level, a pure joy that will have you exiting the theatre humming the tunes and dancing on air. Midler's performance is one for the history books, joining the ranks of all time great star turns thanks to her talent, tireless work, and megawatt star quality. When she descends that grand staircase to the opening chords of the title song in Dolly's signature red dress and resplendent feathered headpiece, it is as if time stops, and you don't just agree but inarguably know that Midler, like Dolly, is truly back where she belongs.