I’d like to begin by revisiting an old grudge: Bernadette Peters was robbed. Back in 2003, the petite powerhouse was nominated for a Tony Award for her sexualized, rage-fueled portrayal of Mama Rose in Gypsy. Here was a youthful, attractive – girlish – Rose who you suspect was destined for the spotlight, whose vanity and displaced hunger for attention were turned, monstrously, on her daughter. Nevertheless, Peters was beaten by a squeaky-voiced, Energizer Bunny turn by Marisa Jaret Winokur in Hairspray. And where is Winokur now? Certainly not on the Shubert stage drawing adoring crowds to the smash-hit revival of Hello, Dolly! Then again, Peters’ 2003 voice is not really on that stage, either.
If you go (or go back) to Hello, Dolly! to bask in the glittering, kittenish glory that is Peters, you will get exactly that: a twinkle-eyed turn by one of Broadway’s greats in Jerry Herman’s 1964 joy-stuffed classic. The role is catnip to musical-theater divas: professional meddler and Jacqueline-of-all-trades Dolly Levi, who genially schemes to tie a handful of matrimonial knots in 1895 New York – including her own with Yonkers “half-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (Victor Garber). Dolly is a flexible role, requiring only that the actress be not quite an ingénue and not a grannie. The role was famously originated by a 43-year-old Carol Channing and committed to celluloid by 27-year-old Barbra Streisand doing her sauciest Mae West. By the grace of good genes (and, possibly, science) Peters retains her youthful bounce and glow. But her voice, I must admit, sounds a trifle thin and ragged during Herman’s most singable tunes.
Not that Peters admirers will care. Her vocal delivery has always hovered at the edge of brass and breaking glass, a delicate yet throaty soprano whose swoops and dives, when joined to Stephen Sondheim’s demanding lyrics, yield glories. Here she slips into Herman’s springy, relentlessly upbeat ballads and anthems with aplomb and spunk – and too much pitchy vibrato. However, Peters partners nicely with a starchy, handsome Garber, who softens the curmudgeonly edge of the character preferred by his predecessor, David Hyde Pierce.
The cast change that really catches your eye is Santino Fontana. This effortlessly charming and velvet-voiced performer (so good in Cinderella and – not singing – Act One) steps into the role of romantic feed-store clerk Cornelius Hackl. The role had been handled beautifully by Tony-winner Gavin Creel, but the actor had a stage spill in March that sidelined him for the foreseeable future. Happily, Fontana makes for a swoon-worthy Cornelius, dark good looks and a gently sardonic demeanor. When he duets with the equally lovely Kate Baldwin (a holdover from the original cast) on “It Only Takes a Moment,” you’ll be in musical-theater heaven.
Jerry Zaks’ sweetly old-fashioned revival contains not a jot of misplaced, modern irony, and what a relief that is. The high-stepping choreography by Warren Carlyle – paying tribute to Gower Champion’s original staging – still looks gorgeous, the chorus sounds wonderful, and the luxurious, Gilded Age splendor still brings a big smile to your face.
My glance over Hello, Dolly’s replacement cast started with a grumble about how Bernadette Peters didn’t win a Tony. In truth, the lady has two already – for 1986’s Song and Dance and 1999’s revival of Annie Get Your Gun (not, bizarrely, for Sunday in the Park with George or Into the Woods). The woman is a legend and undisputed Broadway royalty. Reservations aside, it’s great to have her back where she belongs.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.