That “well-known half-a millionaire,” Horace Vandergelder, eventually comes to see matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi as a “wonderful woman.” She wouldn’t be so wonderful, however, were Bette Midler not playing her wonderfully in director Jerry Zaks’ zingingly wonderful revival, at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, of the Tony-winning Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart Hello, Dolly! This is the tuner’s fifth visit to Broadway, the first in more than 20 years. It was adapted from Thornton Wilder’s 1955 hit play, The Matchmaker, which Wilder himself adapted from his 1939 flop play, The Merchant of Yonkers, which was adapted from — well, there’s no reason to continue on this streak.
Certainly not when there’s firecracker Bette Midler to make a huge fuss over. First and foremost, she’s made Dolly a wonderful woman because she’s such a real woman. Clever at helping others push past past their limits, she’s nonetheless dissatisfied with her own life. A widow for some time — Ephraim, her husband, is a daily presence for her — she’s ready to move on. It’s a plaintive need. And Midler, delighting in her pose as a non-stop matchmaking meddler, never loses sight of that relatable desire.
To digress, sort of: Although several leading ladies played Dolly during the musical’s record-breaking original run — Ethel Merman, Pearl Bailey and Betty Grable, among them — it was Carol Channing who put a lock on the part when producer David Merrick opened the glittering production in 1964. No one would disagree that Channing’s Dolly was always something of a cartoon, based on the bigger-than-life archetype she’d created years earlier as “The Gladiola Girl” in a revue called Lend an Ear — which was choreographed by Gower Champion, who became the director-choreographer of Hello, Dolly!
Midler’s Dolly is no cartoon. She already went that route as “The Divine Miss M,” the adorably iconoclastic stage figure she developed with ex-hairdresser, writer and all-around best friend Bill Hennessy. Here, the many times that Dolly addresses her late Ephraim, Midler sees to it that Dolly retains poignant hope for her future. (Some of this acumen recalls her wow-worthy performance as Janis Joplin-esque Mary Rose Foster in the 1979 film The Rose.)
But don’t jump to the conclusion that the Midler persona upon which audiences dote isn’t present. While conveying Dolly’s longing, Midler also repeatedly leavens the character with that slyly commanding Sophie Tucker persona she’s made part of her act over the years. There’s the hint of comically affected refinement with which she’s always peppered her routines — as, say, when she adjusts her bosom. And there are her eyes, combining a knowing attitude with a hint of devilish intent. For decades, Midler has known how to make the stage her own. She does so here.
For Midler, it’s always been personality first, vocal range second, and that still goes — with more gravel in her voice than before. She makes every one of Jerry Herman’s cheerfully melodic tunes a tied-with-a-ribbon gift, especially the title ditty, a classic Broadway earworm.
To digress, sort of, again: At the performance I saw, Midler had a coughing spell that kept her from promptly sailing into “Before the Parade Passes By.” She wasn’t able to start until a cup of water was gallantly delivered to her, at which point she announced “live theater!” to the audience, jokingly laid down on the stage, and then rose to deliver a full-bodied rendition of the song. The sequence received a standing ovation. More Midler magic.
Part of her charm, too, is that while she knows how to own a stage, she’s hardly proprietary about it as Dolly arranges, meddles and match-makes for milliner Mrs. Molloy (Kate Baldwin), adventurous clerks Cornelius (Gavin Creel) and Barnaby (Taylor Trensch), giddy milliner’s assistant Minnie Fay (Beanie Feldstein), Horace’s tear-soggy ward Ermengarde (Melanie Moore), Ermengarde’s intense suitor Ambrose Kemper (Will Burton), and Ernestina (Jennifer Simard), the surprise date for Horace (David Hyde Pierce) at the Harmonia Gardens. Midler hands them all opportunities to grab focus, and they do.
Bewhiskered almost beyond recognition as Horace — upon on whom Dolly sets her own matchmaking sights — Hyde Pierce bombasts beautifully. To open the second act, he even gets to sing the cute-as-new “Penny in My Pocket,” cut from the tuner originally and and now restored. Audiences love Hyde Pierce as much as they love Midler, and here the love affair holds.
Baldwin is stunning and stately: she sings “Ribbons Down My Back” with clarion tones. Creel is romantic as Cornelius, and live-wire Trensch proves quite an adept scene-stealer. Burton, Moore, Feldstein and the always-hilarious Simard are invaluable to the proceedings.
Especially, and not to be forgotten, are the dancers and their tireless, athletic, work-like-play antics before, during and after the unforgettable title number. Warren Carlisle succeeds Champion as the show’s choreographer, but he doesn’t overlook Champion’s indelible twists and turns. He uses the curving runway on which Dolly and waiters strut with all the energy Champion fired up so memorably. The number might be the greatest ever put on a stage, or one of the Top 10. Or Top 5.
Contributing greatly to this new Hello, Dolly! is Santo Loquasto, who designed the sets and scrims that depict Yonkers, where Vandergelder has his supply store, and New York City, where all assemble for the best day of their lives. Loquasto also designed the costumes, which pay homage Freddy Wittop’s Tony-winning originals. Huzzahs also for lighting designer Natasha Katz, sound designer Scott Lehrer, wigs and make-up by Campbell Young Associates, and conductor Andy Einhorn.
For more than a century, American musicals have entertained the world and any number of them might vie for the top rank. To witness any of them in a first-rate production, an observer may decide, at that moment, that they’re watching the best one. If you see this Hello, Dolly! — and that’s won’t be easy with $40M in advance sales already in the bank — you may very well think it’s the best musical ever written. Who’s to say they’re wrong?