A lot of merchandise is for sale in the lobby of the Shubert Theatre, where Bette Midler stars in the highly anticipated, or, really, let’s make that breathlessly awaited revival of “Hello, Dolly!”
Maybe branded hard hats should be added to the line.
So thunderous and repeated is the applause that roars through the theater during the show — there was even a lusty round for an artificial antique train trundling across the stage — that I began to fear it would shake free some of the moldings in the august theater, letting loose a shower of plaster on the audience below.
Midler’s “Dolly,” with its $40 million-plus advance sale, is without a doubt the white-hot cynosure of the Broadway season. And the patrons lapping up tickets by the bucketful are not likely to go away feeling had. The considerable delights of its Jerry Herman score notwithstanding, “Hello, Dolly!” may not rank among the greatest Broadway musicals, but it is a durable star showcase, famously for Carol Channing, who created the role in the musical and appeared in two Broadway revivals. (The deluxe replacements for Channing during the original nearly seven-year run included Ginger Rogers, Ethel Merman and, most famously, Pearl Bailey.)
And in Midler, “Dolly” has at last found a new headliner capable of engendering the necessary ecstasies as she swans down the famous staircase at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, shimmering in her corseted gown, peacocky plumage sprouting like fireworks from her head. From her first entrance on a (fake) horse-drawn cart to her last bow, Midler serves up a star performance of glowing luster, rambunctious clowning and, on just a few occasions, surprising emotional delicacy. To say she sweeps all before her is to understate the feat: Without breaking into a sweat — although she pretends to wilt against the scenery, to hilarious effect, once or twice — Midler transforms this cotton-candy cloud of a musical into a bona fide theatrical event.
The aesthetic approach here, from director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle, is more a matter of loving restoration than reinvention. This is wise. “Dolly,” for good or ill, is not a show that can accommodate any radical tinkering or psychological underpinnings stitched to its lacy hems. It was a featherweight piece of pure escapism in 1964, and it remains a featherweight piece of pure escapism today, now set inside a freshly gilded and polished frame.
An old-fashioned, gentle farce with little on its mind other than sorting out the romantic fates of various couples in New York in the late 19th century, the musical was adapted from Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” — itself a sepia-toned homage to a Simpler Time. Herman’s sunny-spirited score prances, dances and marches to mostly upbeat tempos. Gower Champion’s celebrated original staging and choreography capered in tandem with its percolating rhythms.
Care has been taken to recreate the ebullience of the original. Once again, the signature big numbers — “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Dancing,” “Before the Parade Passes By,” “The Waiters’ Gallop” and of course the brassy title tune — build to a foaming, exhilarating froth, gussied up by Carlyle and Zaks in the style of museum-quality examples of Broadway musical staging at its buoyant peak. (Santo Loquasto’s sets, featuring lithograph-like flats, likewise pay homage to the originals from Oliver Smith, although Loquasto’s palette is of a markedly brighter hue.)
True, many of the jokes in the book by Michael Stewart were whiskered then, and the whiskers have grown whiskers now. They could almost be said to compete with the considerable facial hair of David Hyde Pierce, who plays Dolly’s matrimonial prey, the hay and feed store owner Horace Vandergelder. Hyde Pierce, the “Frasier” star and thus a dab hand at farce, makes for a huffy, sputtering Horace with a squawking New York accent and a ramrod-stiff spine. (A solo for his character that was cut from the original, “Penny in My Pocket,” has been restored — to minimal effect, I’m afraid.)
Leading the supporting cast are Kate Baldwin, as the milliner Irene Molloy, Horace’s putative love interest (until Dolly decides otherwise), and Gavin Creel as Cornelius Hackl, Horace’s chief clerk, who is deputized by Dolly to supplant his boss in Irene’s already tepid affections. Both give vibrant performances of impressive vocal polish, with Baldwin’s lustrous soprano breathing tenderness into the reflective “Ribbons Down My Back,” and Creel’s beautiful tenor doing much the same on another winsome ballad, “It Only Takes a Moment.”
Of course this is Midler’s show, but among the pleasurable attributes of her performance is her winning knack for making the most of the role’s choicer bits while graciously ceding center stage as necessary. A star shines best when there are strong talents around her to reflect her light, and Midler has been so surrounded here. As does Dolly, Midler takes her time to strut forth with all barrels blazing, but when the first act culminates in her strongest solo, “Before the Parade Passes By,” Midler’s Dolly steps to the fore with easy grace, preceding the rousing anthem with a piercingly moving monologue addressed to her late husband, again asking for his permission to rejoin the tumble of life.
From this point on, Midler carries the show on her diminutive shoulders, managing the lovely feat of acknowledging the audience’s abundant affection for her, with a wink and a smile and a bit of mugging here and there, while never letting her own celebrated persona overwhelm the character. It’s a tricky dance that Midler achieves with the same nimbleness with which she hikes up her full skirts and executes the quick shuffling steps of Dolly’s choreography — not unlike Midler’s own antic signature bustle, in fact.
Even through to the wedding-themed curtain call, Midler remains Dolly Gallagher Levi from the top of her plumed hats down to the pointed toes of her boots, but she is at the same time the vibrant, distinctive Bette Midler, of the sly innuendo and somehow innocent naughtiness, we have long known and cherished. Like the character she’s playing, Midler spreads warmth even as she basks in the waves of love coming toward her. She and Dolly both get to have everything their own way — and we wouldn’t want it any other way. █