The parade of Dolly Gallagher Levis at the Shubert Theatre looks unlikely to pass anyone by, whether it be the various women called upon to play the role or those completists in the audience (myself among them) who feel compelled to report on each of these great ladies in turn. After the dual triumphs of Bette Midler and especially Donna Murphy – the one riding the wave of unalloyed star power and the other reveling in a dramatic and vocal prowess second to none – along comes Bernadette Peters to play the widowed matchmaker who has a business card for any and all occasions.
And how is Peters, who is afforded a hero’s welcome from the audience as befits a performer whose relationship with Dolly! composer Jerry Herman reaches back to Mack and Mabel in 1974? (Her connection to Dolly! book writer Michael Stewart goes back even further – an astonishing half-century to George M in 1968.) Let’s just say that on the night I caught the show, her impishly meddlesome Yonkers marriage-broker was very much a performance in two halves, as if in peculiar accordance with the musical’s two acts.
Throughout the first act, one had to wonder where the director Jerry Zaks and his team had got to. Pretty much the entire company, Peters included, needed focusing and reining-in. After the intermission, by contrast, order was restored, alongside the deliciously idiosyncratic luster to Peters’ voice that remains one of the great signature sounds of Broadway. (Is there another musical theater performer with such a distinctively husky timbre, possessed of an open-throatedness at enticing odds with Peters’ diminutive frame?)
During the opening hour, one was certainly aware of Peters carefully marshalling her talents. Notes slid down the register that in someone else’s hands – Murphy’s, for instance – might have reached up it, and breaths taken so as to ensure continued power through to the end of the melodic line. The comedy felt pushed – the word “ripple” repeated so many times for laughs that even Midler, no slouch in the milking-a-moment-for-effect department, might have given pause. By contrast, with my two visits to the same production last year, the company as a whole had something of the forced bonhomie you sometimes get from Broadway musicals that are settling in for a long, tourist-friendly run, as opposed to a palpable freshness and delight that one could almost taste across the footlights – the by-product, or so it seemed last year, of an ensemble thrilled to be in a musical theater war horse that had scrubbed up as freshly minted as Santo Loquasto’s thrillingly clean-lined sets.
In addition to Peters, the current company is packed with newcomers, who turn out to be a decidedly mixed bag. Molly Griggs’ Minnie Fay has the same character-specific cackle as the role’s likable originator, Beanie Feldstein. But leaving aside an initial catch in her throat that required her to leave the stage briefly in order to recover (it’s been some years since I have seen that happen), Griggs is agreeable but rather bland and is easily outshone by cast holdover Kate Baldwin, whose voice remains in effortlessly shimmering form. (By the way, has anyone noticed, facially, how much Baldwin resembles Judi Dench?) The new Barnaby and Cornelius couple a Broadway newbie, the fast-rising English dance dynamo Charlie Stemp (of Half A Sixpence renown), with erstwhile Tony nominee Santino Fontana (soon to be seen in the stage musical of Tootsie), whose strong vocals can’t compensate for an absence of the charm communicated in spades by Tony winner Gavin Creel. Stemp, as might be anticipated, lends a degree of fancy footwork to the proceedings that one would not have expected from his predecessor, Taylor Trensch.
I was a huge fan of David Hyde Pierce’s gruff-seeming, in fact totally endearing Horace, next to which Victor Garber, making a long-overdue return to the Broadway musical, seems comparatively under-energized. But Garber brings a last-ditch pathos to the part that tallies well with Peters in her more revealing moments as a woman wanting one last hurrah, and the two find a charming chemistry that builds from the Harmonia Gardens scene onwards. Their final coupling is honestly and tenderly earned. As for the vaunted title number, which has brought many a stage legend sweeping down the staircase in a red dress, Peters exults with warmth and brio in the true show-stopper for which she seems to have been husbanding her resources all night long. Long before Dolly Levi – spoiler ahead! – nabs a stage husband in that eternal scold Horace, Peters finds a collective one in the roar of an audience clearly giddy from the sentiment, as the lyric advises, that her Dolly never go away again.