Like mortarboards on graduation day and lizards in Little Orphan Annie, happy critics tend to fling words in the air, leap into paroxysms of ecstasy and throw caution to the wind when something makes us happy. I probably speak for the general critical consortium when I say – duh! – that Bette Midler on Broadway makes us happy.
So I won’t bore you with the Anglo-Austrian roots of the Hello, Dolly! creation myth, the contortions exerted upon it by the likes of Thornton Wilder and Tom Stoppard (though I’d be more than happy to; drop me a line). You want to know how Bette is, especially since her last Broadway show – 2013’s I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers – had the brilliant notion of giving the Divine One a showcase in which she sang not one note. Bette Midler sings, you may have heard. As the widow Dolly Gallagher Levi, Midler gives the customers what they paid for, along with a ton of heart, in the show that opened tonight at the Shubert Theatre.
There’s plenty more to love as well in this somewhat mixed-bag of a production, staged under the sure leadership of Jerry Zaks, a master of lunacy. The two other principals – David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder and Kate Baldwin as Irene Molloy – are every bit as endearing as the star. The look of the show – a fantasia of fin de siècle New York City, Gotham through rose-colored glasses dabbed with Vaseline, and its ever-bustling denizens – is lovingly captured by Santo Loquasto’s sets and costumes in pastel swaths and swatches, flatteringly lit by Natasha Katz to a painterly glow.
And so we have Michael Stewart’s story and Jerry Herman’s score presented with considerable charm with a comparatively lush orchestra (the sound, courtesy of designer Scott Lehrer, is big, if somewhat disembodied) in what is only the second of four Dolly revivals not starring Carol Channing since Carol Channing originated the role in 1964. (The other non-Channing revival starred the inimitable Pearl Bailey, and she was a knockout, too.)
The widow Levi is a matchmaker and ambassador of everybody’s business who has set her own sights on a Yonkers dry-goods merchant, the “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder. To clinch the deal, however, Dolly must sabotage the match she already has made for Horace with Irene Molloy, a ladies’ haberdasher from downtown. Dolly also needs to convince Horace to let his besotted daughter Ermengarde (Melanie Moore) marry the feckless, prospects-challenged artist Ambrose (Will Burton).
A sideshow is offered up by the threesome working for the merchants, Vandergelder’s assistants Cornelius (Gavin Creel) and Barnaby (Taylor Trensch), and Irene’s, Minnie Fay (Beanie Feldstein). And then there’s Ernestina Money (Jennifer Simard). She’s the nonstarter Dolly sets Horace up with in the show’s most famous scene at the swanky Harmonia Gardens restaurant, in order to sink her own eager claws into Horace’s fleshy flanks. This paves the way for the title number, which finds Dolly, resplendent in red silk, feathers and cubic zirconia, swanning down the restaurant’s central stairway as the adoring staff welcomes her back to where she belongs.
No matter that the HG is not where Dolly Levi belongs at all or why the waiters wail for her. It’s a darned good number and it lifts Act II into the stratosphere from which it never comes down.
Here comes the “but” that you may have been hearing awhisper in the background. Act I is a less sure affair for Midler. Hyde Pierce shines in “It Takes A Woman,” in which Horace articulates the need of a wife to avoid paying for a scullery maid. And Baldwin steals the show with the beautiful ballad “Ribbons Down My Back.” But Dolly’s big Act I closer, “Before The Parade Passes By” was limp the night I saw it, with the star searching for the key and clearly holding back on what wants to be a roof raiser.
More problematic is Warren Carlyle’s choreography, which emulates the original work of director-choreographer Gower Champion but which lacks the precision and power Carlyle has been capable of, and that contemporaries like Susan Stroman and Jerry Mitchell are masters at. The dance numbers here strike a bit sloppily, a bit haphazardly, especially in the bumper-car ride that is “The Waiters’ Gallop.”
Perhaps they will improve with time. It certainly is the case that by Act II, Midler was in full command of the show, not only with her wonderful rasp of a voice at peak power, but with a sense of intimacy and, yes, feeling, that humanizes Dolly as she embarks on one of her many “conversations” with her beloved, dead Ephraim. That makes “So Long Dearie” truly touching and sends us out whistling all those happy tunes, happily.