Hello, Dolly! – Sam S. Shubert Theatre, New York

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly at the Sam S. Shubert, New York. Picture: Julieta Cervantes

Hello, Dolly! continues at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, New York.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

“Look at the old girl now, fellas,” the lady in sparkly red at the corner of the stage sings out to the audience.

And you’d have to be a total idiot to not do just that. The ‘old girl’ is, of course, Bette Midler giving her all – every ounce of her feisty charm, vocal power, soulful thesping and comedic genius – to re-create Dolly Gallagher Levi in the smashing new revival of Hello, Dolly!

There is another quality marking her performance as well: that intangible thing called star quality. And the great reward of this production is that Midler doesn’t keep it all to herself. She sprinkles it freely about, so that some of it reflects on everyone in the company.

This never threatens to become ‘The Bette Midler Show’. It is emphatically and always Hello, Dolly!, the story of a crafty New York City matchmaker at the turn of the last century, as she surreptitiously plots to make a match for herself, the unsuspecting, prosperous merchant from nearby Yonkers, Horace Vandergelder.

Under the loving direction of Jerry Zaks, it’s being told in completely integrated, traditional fashion with everybody on stage seemingly having the time of their lives.

Just in case you need to be reminded, the original production of Hello, Dolly! opened in 1964 and played for more than 2,800 performances. It lured audiences with a Jerry Herman score chockablock with lilting melodies and a Michael Stewart book, based on the Thornton Wilder play The Matchmaker, that threw logic to the winds in favour of happy farce and lead-ins to the great songs.

The original star, Carol Channing, gave new meaning to the word inimitable, but a lustrous parade of leading ladies played the role as the years marched by. And oh, yes, there was a movie version as well, starring…who?…oh, yeah, Barbra Streisand.

Nevertheless, in this latest outing, Midler and her creative and performing cohorts magically combine the welcome familiarity of Herman’s score and Stewart’s script with a freshness that makes them seem as if they just rolled off a notepad or computer, or wherever such things come rolling off of these days.

Surrounding Midler is an array of formidable talents. David Hyde Pierce makes the gruff, money-grubbing Vandergelder a charmer in spite of himself. He dispenses his musical chores with ease and ignites a crackling chemistry in his confrontations with Dolly.

Gavin Creel is totally winning as Vandergelder’s bumbling but admirably ardent senior clerk, Cornelius Hackl, seeking a day of adventure in New York. He’s accompanied by junior clerk, Barnaby, played with equal comic vivacity by Taylor Trensch.

As the milliner Irene Molloy, a lady who figures in Dolly’s scheme to ensnare Vandergelder, Kate Baldwin exudes a vivacious grace enhanced by her luminous singing.

Beanie Feldstein, making her Broadway debut in this prodigious company, adds generously to the frivolity as Molloy’s assistant, Minnie Fay.

Zaks has a reputation for brisk pacing, but he lets things slow down as well when they have to. Midler has all the time she needs to locate and build on both the fun and the poignancy in the role.

On the comic side, for example, there’s her repeated ecstatic fluttering of the word ‘rippling’, as she describes the muscles she imagines under Vandergelder’s shirt. On the poignant side, her expressions of the love she felt for her late husband Ephraim can moisten your eyes.

On the musical side of things, the voice shows just the slightest sign of wear, adding mightily to the character. As the same time, there is a rich supply of those full-throated Midler notes. Simply put, Midler makes her every song an event, from her opening expository ‘I Put My Hand In’ to the baton-twirling ‘So Long, Dearie’ toward the close.

And, of course, there’s the full-blown rendition of that title song with Dolly’s iconic entrance into the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. As it should be, it is the triumphant pinnacle.

Warren Carlyle’s animated and balletic choreography adds to the joy of the show, filling the stage with grand production numbers amplifying a song just sung. Carlyle’s work makes a deep bow to the original director/choreographer Gower Champion, especially with the galloping waiters of the Harmonia Gardens, one of the show’s signature bits.

Other important elements include the proudly old-fashioned sketch-like backdrops and the lusciously-hued gowns in Santo Loquasto’s scenic and costume designs.

Ever since plans for this production were first announced in January 2016, the initial mountain-high anticipation has only mounted. And it only continues to climb with the first strains of the overture, one of the most exciting in the musical comedy canon, played with great appreciation by the 22-member orchestra under musical director Andy Einhorn. The show that follows more than justifies it all.

Ron Cohen

Readers may also be interested in:

Hello, Dolly! continues at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, New York – Review

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