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Theatre in Review: Hello, Dolly! (Shubert Theatre)

Bette Midler. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

The three loudest, most tumultuous ovations I have ever heard in a theatre happened the other night at the Shubert -- all of them for Bette Midler, making a momentous return to musical theatre as Dolly Gallagher Levi, marriage broker and meddler extraordinaire. The first comes as she is discovered, on a horse-drawn trolley; she sits there prettily, demure as you please, as the applause washes over her -- but watch out for that familiar glint of mischief in her eyes. Indeed, she gets right down to business, busily handing out her cards to everyone in Grand Central Station and rattling off her plans with the speed of a ticker tape machine spitting out the latest stock prices. "I have always been a woman who arranges things," she sings, and who would doubt it?

The next tsunami of approval comes as, busily arranging four matches (including one for herself), Dolly makes a grand entrance down the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, the good-times palace that was once her second home -- and the threshold of which she has not crossed in ten years of widowhood. Dressed in shameless scarlet and sporting an enormous headdress fanning out like so many tongues of fire, she tears into the title tune, putting herself on parade as the gentleman of the chorus leap across the orchestra pit to pay tribute. She throws herself against the proscenium, apparently collapsing in exhaustion, but don't you believe it: A second later she lifts her skirts and executes a wicked little kick, reminding us -- as if it were necessary -- that there's life in the old girl yet.

We'll get to the third in a minute, but let us pause to observe that the idea of Midler as Dolly is the rare moment when star and role collide with supernova results. Addressing the audience, she refers to her client, the Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder, as "the well-known half a millionaire," shaking her head knowingly, rolling her eyes, and adding sarcastically that she is certain he's worth $60,000 at least. She wants Horace for herself, of course, and she has a nice of way blackening the name of the young widow who has caught his interest, noting casually that the lady's husbands have a way of dying off just after dinner ("A few spoonful's - and phhht!"). She trills a ladylike giggle as Horace leaves the room, then cackles with men-are-such-fools glee the minute he is out of earshot. Dining with Horace at the Harmonia Gardens, she insists that she will never accept his proposal of marriage -- which he hasn't made -- while simultaneously picking up a turkey leg and, pretending to serve him, maneuvering it to her plate. She literally makes a meal of the next scene, forcing an entire courtroom to wait for her testimony while she dines; it's an exquisite bit of mime, with mirth in every mouthful.

None of her genius at this is really surprising; Midler may have come to fame as a pop star, but, really, she is the last vaudevillian, spiking her live shows with such outrageous comic characterizations as the lounge singer Vicki Eydie and the wheelchair-bound mermaid, Dolores Del Lago. Her outsized comic personality merges beautifully with Dolly, whether suavely deflecting Horace from noticing that Irene, his current marital prospect, has men stuffed in a closet and under a table; sashaying through the ultimate kiss-off number, "So Long, Dearie;" or leading the company in a rousing march up Fourteenth Street.

Of course, Midler can belt with the best of them, but what really gets one's attention is how she deftly pauses in the middle of these rowdy, raucous proceedings to seriously address her late husband, asking him to at long last let her go -- and for a sign of his consent to seal the deal. Even more striking is the moment, a few minutes before the finale, when, alone onstage, Dolly allows that without access to a little warmth and a few of life's everyday pleasures, mankind might destroy the world. This is Thornton Wilder -- author of The Matchmaker, the musical's source material -- talking, and it only lasts a minute, but suddenly you see that Dolly's militantly sunny nature is a kind of discipline, acquired as a defense against an often-hostile world. A little dollop of melancholy makes the comedy all the sweeter.

In all of this, Midler has an ideal partner in David Hyde Pierce. His face framed in mutton-chop whiskers, his permanently popped eyes casing the joint for the next malefactor bent on robbing him blind, he is the most delightful skinflint this side of Ebenezer Scrooge. Whether sighing in contentment at the ring of his cash register or announcing that the world is peopled with fools and the sensible few are in constant danger of contamination, his comic instincts are unfailing. Especially delightful are those moments when, confounded by Dolly's machinations, he slips into a state of apoplexy, shutting his mouth drum-tight and puffing his cheeks in and out, looking for all the world like a pigeon in distress. He also gets "Penny in Your Pocket," a number cut from the original production during tryouts, which gives him a delightful solo turn at the top of Act II. Not many leading men could stand up to Midler's torrential comedy, but Pierce does it, with style to spare.

It doesn't take very long for one to realize how efficient Hello, Dolly! is when it comes to spreading delight. Not that it is a perfect piece of entertainment: The Matchmaker is a rather stolid piece of farce machinery, and in making room for song and dance, Michael Stewart, author of the show's book, trimmed it so vigorously that at times the plot barely tracks. Dolly plans to trick Horace into approving the alliance of his niece, Ermengarde, with Ambrose, an artist, by having them take part in a polka contest at the Harmonia Gardens. You can read that sentence as many times as you like -- it's never going to make sense. The scene in which Horace visits Irene at her hat shop, unaware that his employees, Cornelius and Barnaby, are hidden away in a closet and under a table, is some of the barest, baldest farce business around; it doesn't help that the director, Jerry Zaks -- who once had a much more precise hand with this sort of comedy -- has imposed little discipline on the supporting cast, allowing them to mug freely when they should be playing the scene with straight-faced desperation.

But, as in The Matchmaker, Dolly's exhortation to seize life's joys while the moment is ripe never fails, and those irresistible Jerry Herman songs just keep on coming: Dolly laying out her business plan in "I Put My Hand In" ("Pressure with the thumbs/Matrimony comes"); Pierce, as Horace, falling on one knee, Jolson-style, and tenderly fingering a floor mop in "It Takes a Woman" ("It takes a woman all powdered and pink/To joyously clean out the drain in the sink"); and Dolly leading the company in the all-stops-out exuberance of "Before the Parade Passes By." And, a few instances of overplayed comedy aside, the supporting cast catches the wave of the star's exuberance. As Cornelius, Gavin Creel lends his stunning voice to "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," one of the most galvanic numbers in Herman's catalog; he also does beautifully by the ballad "It Only Takes a Moment," delivered in the courtroom where Dolly's machinations have landed one and all. Kate Baldwin's Dresden-china looks, especially when dressed in pastels by the costume designer, Santo Loquasto, are perfect for the pretty, marriage-minded widow, Irene; the actress' warm belt is also ideal for "Ribbons Down My Back," arguably the show's most distinctive song. Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein appear to be having a giddily good time as Barnaby and Minnie Fay. The divinely deadpan comic actress Jennifer Simard has a priceless bit as the gravel-voiced doxy whom Dolly enlists as Horace's dinner partner at the Harmonia Gardens.

Zaks' production -- and Warren Carlyle's joyously athletic choreography -- stays firmly within the contours of Gower Champion's original staging. Loquasto's scenic design unfurls one period lithograph view of old New York after another, and his view of the Harmonia Gardens will be familiar to any fan of the show. He also provides a parade of sherbet-colored suits and dresses for "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" and populates "Before the Parade Passes By" with a piquant assortment of waiters, gymnasts, Valkyries, and suffragettes. Natasha Katz's lighting is a model of smooth professionalism, as is Scott Lehrer's sound design. When you can understand every word of the opening to "I Put My Hand In," sung by the entire chorus, you know you can relax and enjoy the show.

Oh, and that third ovation? It comes during the curtain call -- and it might still be going on had the cast not finally left the stage. Hello, Dolly! is a show about coming back -- to home, to oneself, to the rough-and-tumble of life. You don't need me to tell you that Bette Midler has come back to Broadway: Just listen to the cheers. -- David Barbour

(25 April 2017)

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