Comparisons are odious, but sometimes they’re inevitable. Take, for example, Hello Dolly! I was fortunate enough to see the original Broadway production with the unique Carol Channing in 1965, and a few years later the all-black version with the coolly insinuating Pearl Bailey. Both ladies were great but couldn’t have been more different. At Drury Lane I saw a woefully miscast Mary Martin followed by a ditzy Dora Bryan. Then in 1969 came the lavish screen version with Barbra Streisand, who was vocally sensational but far too young.
When Channing finally vacated the role, the iconic red dress she wore at the plush Harmonia Gardens Restaurant became the property of a galaxy of stars that also included Ethel Merman, Martha Raye, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable and Phyliss Diller.
Now, 53 years since its New York opening, Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s perennial crowd-pleaser has been reincarnated as a massive showcase for Bette Midler, whose Dolly has deservedly won almost unanimous critical acclaim and whose entrance received the loudest, most sustained reception I have heard in a lifetime of theater-going on either side of the Atlantic.
As the whoops and shrieks reached a deafening crescendo, it occurred to me just how much New York adulates an international megastar. Glenn Close, currently starring as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, has also been warmly embraced on Broadway this season, but she’s played the role before and her hysteria quotient isn’t in the same ballpark as Midler’s. It will be interesting to see who’ll eventually replace the divine Bette when she decides enough is enough. Dolly Parton (as rumor has it)?
Though the voice is frayed at the edges and doesn’t always do justice to Herman’s earworm of a score, Midler’s beguiling, manipulative way with an all-too-eager audience, her immaculate comic timing and the knack she has of making you feel she’s talking directly to you is irresistible. She’s certainly the most persuasive Dolly I’ve seen. Particularly moving are her intimate asides to her late husband Ephrahim Levi. They come straight from the heart and you believe every word.
There’s stalwart support from David Hyde Pierce, who, against all expectations, sheds the prissy demeanor he created for the role of Niles on Frasier, turning the hay and seed merchant Horace Vandergelder, Yonkers’ best-known half a millionaire on whom Dolly has set her matrimonial sites, into far less of a curmudgeon than usual.
As Vandergelder’s two young assistants on a quest for adventure, there are delightful performances from a full-throated Gavin Creel as Cornelius Hackl and Taylor Trensch as Barnaby, while as the widowed miIliner Irene Molloy, with whom Cornelius falls instantly in love, Kate Baldwin is positively radiant.
My enjoyment of this handsome revival, however, with its nostalgically evocative sets and gorgeously colorful costumes by Santo Loquasto, was not unconditional. Relentlessly directed by Jerry Zaks to within an inch of its life, and with a precision verging on the robotic, the production is on occasion so tightly wound that it’s in danger of having the life squeezed out of it. Certain scenes, especially the one in Irene Molloy’s hat shop, overdo the farcical goings-on by exaggerating every gesture and contorting every facial expression to the point of exhaustion.
Warren Carlyle’s choreography shines but does not outshine Gower Champion’s original staging and is perfectly serviceable in numbers like "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" and "Elegance," but the fabulous "Waiter’s Gallop" – one of the most memorable dance routines I have ever seen on a Broadway stage – lacks the wow factor of the original and feels under-populated.
But it really doesn’t matter. In the end it is Midler’s star wattage that sets her fans aglow and seduces them into paying hundreds of dollars for the sheer experience of her presence. Right now no diva on Broadway twinkles so brightly.