All those who declined to take out a second mortgage to buy a pair on the aisle for Bette Midler in “Hello, Dolly!” can stop rending their garments and tearing out their hair. The revered Broadway veteran Bernadette Peters has now stepped into Dolly’s dainty boots and bustle skirts, and is bringing the audience to virtually the same state of rapture that Midler did. With a frisky ease that belies the hard work no doubt involved — Dolly is onstage for much of the show — she delivers a performance of glistening wit and sustained warmth that adds another feather to a career cap (or should I say headdress?) already festooned with plenty.
Although her talents are varied and assured, I’ll confess some of Peters’s past performances have left me a bit let down. Her Momma Rose did not dazzle on the night I saw “Gypsy” – leaving me a bit puzzled when she delivered a breathtaking “Rose’s Turn” on the Tony Awards. Reba McEntire was more persuasive than Peters as a gun-toting gal in “Annie Get Your Gun.”
But here, in extraordinary circumstances – following the most celebrated star turn on Broadway in memory – Peters is utterly flawless. From her very first moments, when she gets a sly laugh during her entrance scene when she seems to wink at the audience as she bounces up and down in her seat, mimicking the rocking of a horse-drawn carriage, she invests her performance, and by extension the show, with an ebullience that never lets up. She has always been captivating when delivering a song – I can get shivers recalling her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” in “A Little Night Music” – but in Dolly, under the expert comic direction of Jerry Zaks, she finds something to delight us in virtually every aspect of the role.
She delights us, but moves us too. While Peters’s Dolly clearly takes sly pleasure in manipulating the romantic fortunes of the characters swirling around her, her greater desire shines through with a quiet shimmer: This is a woman whose own heart, locked away in storage after the death of her first husband, is beginning to beat again. For Peters’s Dolly, spreading the seeds of love around her is an act of self-regeneration, and watching it take place brings the show a surprising new layer of emotional depth. And while Dolly takes a maternal pleasure in pairing off the love-addled youngsters in her charge, as portrayed by Peters there remains more than a touch of demure sensuality, and vulnerability, in the woman herself.
Which isn’t to say the musical’s farcical aspects have grown pallid. On the contrary, as the show approaches its one-year anniversary this spring, it seems to have acquired, well, a fresh spring in its step. The silliest jokes seem to have blossomed into true wit; the musical numbers — from what is Jerry Herman’s finest score — have just as much, if not more, buoyant zest than they did when the show opened; the show seems to fly by at the pace of a racehorse in the home stretch. It’s over almost before you’ve had time to register how much fun you’ve had.
The remaining members of the supporting cast perform with a vitality that suggests they continue to discover new pleasures: As Cornelius Hackl, the chief clerk of the curmudgeonly general goods store owner Horace Vandergelder (now played by Victor Garber), Gavin Creel remains a marvelous combination of youthful ardor, gawkiness and romantic magnetism. As Irene Molloy, the milliner widow for whom he instantly falls into a lovestruck swoon, Kate Baldwin still sings like a dream – a dream you never want to end – and seems to have found new inflections of worldly humor in her role. And I would be remiss not to mention how resplendently funny Jennifer Simard remains in the small role of the brashly vulgar Ernestina, whom Dolly pairs with Horace in order to send him volleying back into her own arms.
A couple of new additions to the supporting cast lend their own new seasoning to the fun. As Barnaby Tucker, Cornelius’s anxiety-riddled assistant, the terrific British actor Charlie Stemp, who made a splash recently in the West End starring in “Half a Sixpence,” dances with the gravity-defying energy of an Olympic figure skater, and his rendering of Barnaby’s goofy boyish ingenuousness is continually funny. (To my surprise — this was my third visit to the production — I kept laughing at the repeated jokes about Barnaby’s burning desire to see that whale.) And as Barnaby’s vis-à-vis, Irene’s assistant Minnie Fay, Molly Griggs matches Stent’s sweet naiveté to perfection.
I wish I could add that Garber brings much to the party, but while he is, as always, a fine singer and a sterling actor, his Horace seems to be the only character who remains earthbound as the others lift off into the heady air of finely whipped farce. Garber has yet to acquire the charm of the comic dupe that softens the character’s gruff edges, as David Hyde Pierce expertly did.
That is, of course, a minor quibble: In truth Horace is more of a device than a character vital to the musical’s appeal. Its appeal resides firmly in the title character, and with Peters we are, throughout the evening, held in a state of sweet, sometimes giddy grace. Even more than the Divine Miss M, the Marvelous Miss P seems to be having the time of her life playing this choice role, not incidentally giving audiences the time of theirs, or ours, as we sit and smile and bask.
Bernadette Peters replaced Bette Midler in the leading role of Dolly Levi Gallagher in “Hello, Dolly!” at the Shubert Theatre. The official opening night for Peters was Thurs. Feb. 22, 2018.
Creative: Book by Michael Stewart; Music by Jerry Herman; Lyrics by Jerry Herman; Based on the play ‘The Matchmaker’ by Thornton Wilder; Directed by Jerry Zaks; Choreographed by Warren Carlyle; Scenic Design by Santo Loquasto; Costume Design by Santo Loquasto; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer.
Cast: Bernadette Peters, Victor Garber, Charlie Stemp, Molly Griggs, Collin Baja, Giovanni Bonaventura, Max Clayton, Darius Crenshaw, Julian DeGuzman, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Michael Hartung, Ian Liberto, Charles McCall, Sarah Meahl, Jessica Sheridan, Kristen Beth Williams.
Producers: Scott Rudin, Roy Furman, James L. Nederlander, Eli Bush, Universal Stage Productions, Roger Berlind, William Berlind,Heni Koenigsberg, Terry Allen Kramer, Seth A. Goldstein, The John Gore Organization, Daryl Roth, The Araca Group, Len Blavatnik, Eric Falkenstein, Ruth Hendel, Independent Presenters Network, Peter May, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Jane Bergère, Scott M. Delman, Wendy Federman, Stephanie P. McClelland, Anita Waxman, Al Nocciolino, Spring Sirkin, Barbara Freitag and John Mara, Jr. & Benjamin Simpson.