Every actor who’s played Dolly Levi - from the original Dolly, Carol Channing, to even stand-up comic Phyllis Diller - has informed the role with her own persona. Dolly’s perfect for any diva: she was written by playwright Michael Stewart and lyricist and composer Jerry Herman for the Broadway legend Ethel Merman, who finally played the part at the end of HELLO, DOLLY!’s original Broadway, six-year run (and whom I saw perform it in my first Broadway play on a high school visit to New York City). But beyond persona or divaness, it’s hard to imagine any musical comedy actress defining the role with her own ACT (emphasis added) more than Midler. In this grandly entertaining revival of one of America’s most successful musicals, Bette Midler plays Bette Midler playing Dolly Levi.
Midler plays her diva card right from the start, when, upon her entrance, she gets an ovation, not a standing one (although multiples of those occur later). Having captured the automatic adulation of the audience, Midler quickly turns to bonding with it like the legendary diva she's become. In the performance I saw, in the first “book” scene in the first act, Midler (deliberately it appeared) dropped a line, called for it, then laughed at herself. Having kicked down the fourth wall, she delightfully romps - sometimes unapologetically hamming it up, reveling in her own, unique schtick - for the next two and half hours. (At a performance a few days later, I learned, Midler stops before beginning an Act 1 number to ask for a drink of water.)
There’s real method to Midler’s campy madness. She ingratiates herself by poking fun at herself about being too old for the part (she’s 71) and pre-empts the gossip that she tires too easily or that her voice isn’t what it used to be. (It's ok. Not the range it once was, naturally, but ok.) At one point, she takes a breath with broad vaudevillian flair. At another, after an especially robust ensemble number (there are multiple), she leans, winded, against the proscenium, wiping her brow. Phew!
Midler's Dolly is a chockablock of her burlesque-style mannerisms - from the quick-footed, baby-stepped, butt-bustling, shoulder-shaking, wrist-swaying sashaying to her nasalized, elongated vowels (just hear what she does with Yaaaawnkers) she made famous in her concert acts back in the Seventies. HELLO, DOLLY! could be renamed THE DIVINE MISS L(evy).
First produced in 1964, HELLO, DOLLY!, based on Thornton Wilder’s play THE MATCHMAKER, tells the tale of the busy-body, widow Mrs. Ephraim Levy of Manhattan around 1900, who wheedles to wed widow Horace Vandegelder (niftily played by David Hyde Pierce) of Yonkers, a client whom she has brokered in pending marriage proposal to young New York widow Irene Molloy. By coincidence, Vandergelder’s shop assistants in his Yonkers’ feed store, Cornelius and Barnaby, playing hooky from work in Manhattan, wander into Mrs. Molloy’s millinery shop where they are discovered by Vandergelder. That ends Vandergelder's interest in Irene, so Cornelius escorts her for a night on the town, Barnaby the shopgirl Minnie Fay. In Act 2, everyone ends up that evening at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant where Dolly, knowing she has already doomed Vandergelder's interest in Irene, sets him up with an unattractive dinner date, herself making a splashy entrance (the big “Hello Dolly” number). Vandergelder again discovers Cornelius and Barnaby with Irene and Minnie Fay. Mayhem ensues. All but Dolly are hauled off to jail. When the dust settles, everyone gets their romantic match, and Vandergelder finally relents to Dolly’s persistence and charm, agreeing to marry her.
Second billing in this revival should go to Jerry Herman’s score, with its portfolio of well-known or instantly recognizable tunes, like “Before the Parade Passes By”, “It Only Takes A Moment”, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, “I Put My Hand In”, “Elegance” and, of course, the title song, arguably the most hummable - and viral - Broadway show tune ever composed.
The sets and costumes by designer Santo Loquasto are gorgeous. The painterly canvas backdrops evoke not only "opera" houses that sprang up all over late 19thc America but also city and Hudson River scenes from illustrated gazette’s like Scribner’s or Collier's of the time. The elegant costumes, layered in period detail, are nonpareil. Most dazzling are the outfits for the ensemble in “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” where Loquasto eschews naturalistic colors he uses in the rest of the show for almost Day-Glo solid pastels to a blaze of Technicolor effect that would make MGM movie musical genius Vincente Minelli wide-eyed.
The supporting cast is excellent, albeit peculiarly miscast in one pairing. Gavin Creel looks the virginal 33-year old Cornelius, boyish enough to be in his twenties. Kate Baldwin plays the youngish widow Irene Malloy but can’t disguise a sophistication of a middle-aged woman. The coupling oddly suggests a May - September romance. Age appropriate - though of different body types to charming effect - is the pairing of a short, cherubic Beanie Feldstein as a feisty Minnie Fay with the youthfully-framed Taylor Trensch as naïve, soft-spoken Barnaby.
David Hyde Pierce fares well against Midler’s Dolly. He creates a character, instead of playing himself. He’s costumed and made-up to look unkempt, disheveled and old. Pierce strikes the perfect misanthropic notes with his signature droll tone and impeccable timing and employs an authentic-sounding, old-fashioned New York accent to boot.
Warren Carlyle choreographs it all splendidly from the soft-shoe elan of “Elegance” to the razzle-dazzle, leg-kicking chorus line of the title number (goosebumps guaranteed). “The Waiters' Gallop” is a dizzying exercise in perfectly-timed athleticism. Veteran director Jerry Saks knows better than anybody how to squeeze every entertaining moment from all the showbiz on stage.
But, getting back to Bette. It’s all about Bette. She grabs the audience form her entrance and never lets go. She particlualry entrances with a silent routine at the Harmonia Gardens, where she ravenously feasts alone after everyone has been hauled off to jail. Gnawing on chicken bones, gulping sauce out of a silver gravy boat, and then draining the silver serving tray, she concludes her meal by popping over a dozen dumplings into her mouth. At first it’s Chaplinesque, then like Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory skit, but alas, for me, it recalled Paul Newman in the hard-boiled egg scene from Cool Hand Luke. When Midler reached again for the gravy boat, I’d had enough of the gag. (Pun intended). The audience loved it.
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