I’ve never been a huge fan of Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! despite its lofty reputation. To be fair I’ve seen only local productions, as well as the overstuffed movie version (which nevertheless features a great star turn by Barbra Streisand and an exhilarating cameo from Louis Armstrong). But it always came across to me as a rather brittle and artificial show about a pushy woman who browbeats a miserly grouch until he has an unconvincing reformation and agrees to marry her. And then there’s that endless dancing waiter scene at the Harmonia Gardens, an exercise in the mechanics of farce without any of the joy. But there’s no denying the show-stopping power of the title song, and several of the other numbers are lovely.
Jerry Zaks’ new Broadway revival is expertly mounted and lavishly produced, and it currently features Broadway legend Bernadette Peters in the title role, famously taking over from Bette Midler, whose star wattage guaranteed sell-out crowds. Peters is a very different performer from Midler, although they’ve both played Mama Rose and now Dolly Levi. Peters has also played Annie Oakley, and could probably be cast in several other Ethel Merman, brass-gong roles, but Peters has a delicacy and vulnerability that is never far beneath the surfaces of her star turns. I’m sure that when Bette Midler made her entrance as Dolly, she owned the stage instantly and never let it out of her grip. Peters, in what in many ways is a revelatory interpretation, portrays Dolly as an actual person, as a lonely widow who is trying very hard to make it in this world by the force of her own will, but is also exhausted from having to do so. She doesn’t hold the stage in the way Midler must have, but by the time of the Act I finale, “Before the Parade Passes By,” she owns the hearts of everyone in the theater. She imbues the song with emotion, with both sorrow and hope, loneliness and joy, that has never been associated with any previous version of Dolly that I’ve seen.
The first act is pretty much bliss, despite its lackluster opening number, “I Put My Hand In.” (Streisand knew what she was doing when she asked for a different song for the movie.) It certainly helps that Peters is supported by a dream cast. Victor Garber as blowhard Horace Vandergelder somehow gives the old coot warmth and charm even as he’s forbidding his daughter from marrying the gangly artist she’s in love with, and denying his employees any time off ever. It finally makes sense that Dolly sees something in Horace that no one else around him would ever fathom he possesses. And Santino Fontana (newly replacing Gavin Creel) is wonderful as head clerk Cornelius Hackl. Fontana expertly calibrates his performance to the artificiality of the show, bringing a reality and a groundedness, along with true charisma. As his sidekick Barnaby, Charlie Stemp mugged a bit too much at first, but eventually won me over with his terrific dancing and comic physicality. The wonderful “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” is a triumph, and when Zaks and his choreographer Warren Carlyle bring on a huge train that there couldn’t have possibly been wing space for, the number soars to the moon.
Things only improve when Kate Baldwin appears as Horace’s putative match, Irene Molloy. Baldwin gives the role a slightly bawdy zestfulness, as well as turning the usually wan “Ribbons Down My Back,” into something rather beautiful. And her scenes opposite Fontana are terrific. As her underling Minnie Fay, Molly Griggs is great fun, being both scandalized and delighted by Irene’s behavior, and matching up beautifully with Stemp’s Barnaby.
The second act is a bit rockier. Garber performs the opener “Penny in My Pocket” (cut from the original production) like the old pro he is, and it’s wonderful. But even Zaks and Carlyle can’t overcome the endless “The Waiters’ Gallop,” where the chorus boys spend way too much time dodging scenery and juggling props. Peters also has problems in the two big scenes where she has to dish up and chow down on enormous quantities of food. She broke character in both sequences the night I saw her, laughing as potatoes and beets strayed from the plates supposed to contain them. (The audience forgave her, but even so. I’ve heard Midler excelled in these scenes, which is no surprise given her talent for physical comedy, which is not one of Peters’ strengths.) But when the title song kicks in, with its expert construction and brilliant staging, showing off Peters brilliantly, the overwhelming showbiz razzmatazz of it all sends you into a giddy delirium. It’s heaven.
When all is set right by play’s end, the show, at its best, comes off like a crazy Midsummer Night’s Dream, with mismatched lovers set aright by a lovely, even slightly heartbreaking sprite named Dolly. Peters, Zaks, and the wonderful cast haven’t completely changed my opinions of the material, but they gave me far more pleasure than I thought a production of Hello, Dolly! ever could.
Hello, Dolly! continues indefinitely at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre, New York. For more information, go to http://hellodollyonbroadway.com/.