If your question is, “Who’s better in Hello, Dolly! – Bette Midler or Donna Murphy?” you’ll have to look elsewhere for an answer. It’s not a contest. Midler and Murphy are stars, arguably of different magnitudes, but stars beyond debate; each brings her star qualities to an iconic role in a pretty perfect revival that last month won four Tony awards, including best revival and leading actress in a musical.
Murphy capped two weeks of performances as Dolly Gallagher Levi with an added evening show Sunday night and will resume her regular once-weekly slot Tuesday; Midler returns from vacation Wednesday. Having seen both (as well as Carol Channing, Ethel Merman and Pearl Bailey as Dolly on Broadway), I can say this: Murphy is absolutely wonderful as the meddling, multitasking matchmaker with designs on Yonkers half-a-millionaire merchant Horace Vandergelder. This shouldn’t surprise anyone with memories of her previous Tony-winning performances, in Passion and The King and I; my own fond memories of her exceptional range and charisma extend back to the off-Broadway musical romp Song of Singapore, more than 25 years ago.
Murphy’s Dolly is gabby, game and gleeful as she dispenses the pleasures of Jerry Herman’s songs and Michael Stewart’s lines, occasionally with a conspiratorial wink. (“Oh, stop!” her eyes seem to telegraph, none-too-convincingly, when the extremely partisan audience roared at her first entrance.) She hardly is averse to shtick, as in an extended Harmonia Gardens duet with dumplings that grows comically orgasmic. Her velvet soprano is nearly unrecognizable here, armored in a thick 14th Street accent and a Rudy Vallee warble, all evident from the first phrases of Dolly’s opening number, “I Put My Hand In.”
I can also tell you this much is different since mid-April, when I saw the show with Midler: Jerry Zaks’ production is better. The dancing of Warren Carlyle’s choreography is sharper and funnier (“The Waiters’ Gallop” was a mess early on; now it’s sheer lunacy, as God meant it to be). The sound is more crisp, the ensemble more assured and the accompanying stars perfectly aligned. Chief among them is the mustache-twitching harrumph of a Horace endearingly played by David Hyde Pierce, who appears to have had no trouble trading one Dolly for another. And Gavin Creel is even more amiable as chief clerk Cornelius Hackl.
And then there’s Kate Baldwin’s completely delicious Irene Molloy. While Zaks wisely slows thing down to a heartfelt sentimental payoff in the show’s final scene, it’s Baldwin’s gently gorgeous Act I “Ribbons Down My Back” that delivers the crucial first infusion of genuine feeling, heightening the silliness that follows. The rest is cream.