Three Tony-Award winning actresses have now taken on the title role in last season's triumphant revival of Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's Hello, Dolly!, and I have been fortunate to see all three. This production, built around Bette Midler, marked her return to Broadway in a book musical fifty-one years after her debut as a replacement in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof. As Dolly, Midler's small stature and natural clownish ways were used to perfect effect under the confident direction of Jerry Zaks. Donna Murphy, who played Tuesday night performances throughout Midler's contracted run, rightly attempted not to copy what Midler was doing. Totally making it her own, Murphy was excellent, thrillingly sung, and with a firm grip on the drama inherent in the role (it may be a comedy, but Dolly's attempt to "rejoin the human race" requires warmth and pathos, or else the the show falls short of hitting its mark). If Murphy couldn't match that magical connection with the audience that Midler's unique personality (and personal history) brought to the proceedings, I'm sure Murphy was resigned to it. After all, it was an event. Audiences paid whatever it took to see Midler, attending each performance expressing unbounded love and admiration for the star—and having it returned in kind by Midler in loving and equal measure. Now with the beloved Bernadette Peters leading a sterling company of actors, singers and dancers, the part of Dolly Gallagher Levi is in the capable hands of someone not only deeply experienced in the ways of performing on stage, but one with exactly the right amount of star power (and yes, glamour) to guarantee a love fest from first entrance to final bow.
Bernadette Peters, currently wowing them in Hello, Dolly! at the Shubert Theatre.
Writing about these three actress is not intended as a comparison of their worthiness (come on!—they are among the most accomplished and talented musical theatre actresses alive). And I'm not even going to get into my memories as a kid, when decades ago, I saw Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman's Dolly's during the show's original run at the St. James Theatre. What I aim to express is how wonderful these actresses were in this new production; each providing moments that made me feel as if I was seeing something completely new, which is probably the best compliment I can pay. Of course, in theory, these three ladies should be different, but in my personal fifty years of theatregoing, it's surprising how many actors go into shows as replacements who are not encouraged to make it their own. Sometimes this comes from a director in love with what the previous actor did, and unwilling to entertain a new interpretation, or the actor themselves, uncertain how to be faithful without rocking the boat too much. It's a delicate balance. The best ones figure it out.
One time a very famous actor, when replacing another famous actor as the lead in a Broadway musical, confessed to me years later that at his first rehearsal in the part, the very famous director of the show assured him he was uninterested in any duplication of the previous actor's interpretation (I hate to be obtuse here, but all three are very much still alive and working). With that said, the director then instructed the actor to repeat every bit of staging and business the other actor did, right down to which hand must be used to turn a doorknob. Knowing this was potential for disaster, the actor merely nodded, did as he was told ... then changed it all to suit his own needs once the director left the rehearsal room.
That was forty-five years ago, and in some cases, the practice continues on today. But not at the Shubert Theatre where Hello, Dolly! is playing. Victor Garber has come on board to play opposite Peters, in a role made most memorable by David Hyde Pierce, who brought his usual comedy timing perfection to Horace Vandergelder. No slouch as a comedian either, Garber excels at the pent-up rage and frustration at Dolly. That is, until it finally melts into genuine love and worship. His final scene with Peters was deeply moving, as you felt that these two were going to actually have a wonderful marriage. What more can you ask for? And though Gavin Creel, who won a Tony for his Cornelius Hackl, is still in the show, I saw his understudy, Christian Dante White, who has gone on enough times as to be fully assured in his singing and dancing. Replacing Taylor Trensch as Barnaby Tucker is the British actor Charlie Stemp, who recently won over London critics as the star of a revival of Half a Sixpence. Taking full advantage of his extraordinary dance skills, new moves were added by choreographer Warren Carlyle, which serve to send Stemp positively air born.
Lastly, Kate Baldwin continues to dazzle as Irene Malloy, in a performance that gets better every time I see it. The heartfelt yearning she brings to “Ribbons Down my Back” is an acting lesson for anyone who aspires to sing on a Broadway stage. The first time I saw Baldwin perform this number was nearly a year ago from my paid standing room ticket at the back of the orchestra. When the song ended, the woman to my left turned and smiled at me with tears in her eyes. I smiled back, misty-eyed myself, and whispered, “It doesn’t get better than that.” I should also add here that if Bernadette Peters's monologue to her dead husband prior to "Before the Parade Passes By" (as well as the song itself), doesn't have you shedding a tear or two, you might need to have your heart checked by a physician.
Tickets are now easier to come by for this Dolly. I urge anyone who loves the musical theatre, especially as musicals were once constructed and designed, to go see this loving valentine of a production. It harkens back to a time when composers like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jule Styne, Lerner and Loewe and Frank Loesser ruled the day. And to repeat, for added emphasis: "It doesn't get better than that."
Here’s a video of the current cast taking their bows:
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.