- Hello, Dolly!
5/13/17 (Sat), Broadway
Bette Midler as Dolly – how perfect is that? In her last Broadway musical back in the 1960s, Fiddler, she was singing to a matchmaker; now she’s become one. The excitement level was very high for this show; it’s easily the hottest ticket in town next to Hamilton, and she’s already extended the limited run into December, which quickly sold out. The audience cheered at the opening bars of the overture, at the title song in the overture, at the opening of the curtains, at Bette’s first appearance, at the opening of her first song and on and on. Let’s face it: we weren’t there for the sets. She carried a tremendous store of good will, and the energy in the audience could have lit the theater. My only worry was the memory of the last time I saw the show, when Carol Channing was treading gingerly through it at an age way too old for the role. We applauded at the staircase scene in sheer relief that she made it down safely. Bette isn’t too much younger (she’s 71), but the word out there is very good. So it was hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm.
As it turned out, she was a bright new face in an old production. It looks little changed from the last Broadway iteration – they’ve basically plucked Carol out and put Bette in – and I have to say it’s a bit creaky. I was hoping for some new staging ideas, especially in the opening song and waiters’ number, along with some papering over of some of the plot’s more glaring holes. The old-time staging fits the Gay 90s (in the old sense) era, but with every movement staged to the last millimeter, there’s no sense at all of spontaneity. With actors of this quality, I would have preferred to see them let loose and see what happens, which have added immensely to, say, the rather mechanical “Dancing”. That extends to the opening number as well, which offers such great comic opportunities; I wonder what Jerome Robbins would have done with it (he was busy with Fiddler). Some of the dialogue was delivered strangely straight to the audience Ethel-Merman-like rather than to the other character, as in the “It Only Takes A Moment” sequence, though that staginess was actually charming and maybe intentional. Worse was the hat shop scene: two employees playing hooky hide quickly when their boss unexpectedly enters the shop, then proceed to run around hysterically in and out of hiding spots as the boss stands there. So why leave a safe hiding spot for no reason? Beats me. Surely the director could have created some danger of exposure that would have prodded them out. The attempt to be funny for no dramatic reason smacks of desperation. Plot-wise, the biggest irritant is still the wallet mix-up in the restaurant when the poor employees end up with their boss’ cash-stuffed purse due to a mistake by the waiters, a sheer coincidence having nothing to do with Dolly or the rest of the story. Forum, which I just saw again recently in Japan, had set the standard for great musical farce a year or two earlier, but these writers don’t seem to have learned anything.
Still, the entire audience was there for one reason only, to see Bette do her stuff, and we got our money’s worth. True, her voice is not what it was; I’m not sure if those croaks were a cold or natural aging (I thought of Lucy in the movie Mame). Some of the high notes were beyond her, and the cast had to help out discreetly for difficult endings. I’m not even sure what that accent was, and she’s certainly no dancer, maybe due partly to age. She was also hamstrung by the pinpoint direction and choreography. The part of a yente is tailor-made for her, and I wish they had just let Bette be Bette. Surprisingly she wasn’t even as Jewish as I had imagined.
Nevertheless, she carried it all off on the sheer strength of her formidable personality. She used every trick in her book and then some, and if a large part of her acting was just her usual shtick, that was fine with us. She followed every high point with a higher point, especially in any scene with her intended-to-be Horace, and by the end it was impossible not to be won over. Her never-flagging exuberance was contagious. The more serious scene where she asks her late husband’s permission to marry again was also quite moving. She was in top gear from start to finish.
Of course, there were also those tremendous songs, which need no justification whatsoever. They outshined the previous night’s Golden Apple in every way, a lesson in great writing (and wonderfully orchestrated and played). The costumes were vivid and joyful, and the sets – a train, a horse, a big parade, the Harmonia Garden stairs – were a show on their own. The production numbers were on a suitably grand scale; the title number in particular got a standing ovation. (Bette hilariously teased out an encore, pretending to be too exhausted to continue until cheered sufficiently to give it another go.) The theater felt almost too small for the huge production.
David Hyde Pierce was as good as it gets as Vandergelder, a perfect foil for Bette. He has great comic timing and double-takes, and got laughs at every step. He and Bette are the only ones that really had a personality. They even gave him a cute song at the opening of Act II that had been cut from the original, which he made great work of. Tony calling. Kate Baldwin was the most impressive of the others, delivering big time on “Ribbons Down My Back”, but all the main actors had terrific singing voices. The acting issues were a function of the direction and harder to judge, but there was a general playfulness by all that was just right for this material.
All in all, while I think an opportunity was missed here, it was unquestionably good solid old-fashioned fun. Bette’s pretty much irreplaceable in this production – Liza’s the only other name I can think of that at that iconic level, and she’s way too old and frail. (The wonderful Donna Murphy, who gave such a spectacular comic performance in Wonderful Town, will be taking over on Wednesday matinees, but that’s not likely to last long.) The production is more of an event than great theater, but who’s complaining? Given the presence of La Bette and the limited time frame, this is unmissable whatever its flaws, about as good a production of Dolly, at least in the Gower Champion version, that we’re ever going to get.
P.S. Here’s a link from an earlier post: Bette back on Broadway: Hello, dollars!