REVIEW: "Hello, Dolly!" with Bernadette Peters-still crowing, still growing, still going strong!
In the pantheon of Broadway musicals there are major revivals and minor revivals. And let there be no mistake, the current, glorious revival of Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s masterpiece “Hello, Dolly!” falls firmly in the former category.
It is a gift, a once in a decade jubilee of American musical comedy greatness in the tradition of “Kiss Me, Kate” (1999) and “South Pacific” (2008), prior pitch perfect presentations of classic musicals from the golden age that reimagined their iconic original productions while simultaneously paying homage and breathing new life into the most familiar and beloved material in the canon.
“Dolly!” had not been away as long as the other two—short-lived revivals were staged in 1975, 1978, and 1995, all carbon copies of the original—but by 2017, time was ripe, and producer Scott Rudin knew it, assembling a top-notch team, under the helm of veteran director Jerry Zaks, to deliver a first rate production as sharp, fresh, exciting, and joyful as “Dolly!” rightfully ought to be.
I’ve made a regular pilgrimage to the Shubert Theatre five times over the last year, catching Bette Midler, Donna Murphy, and now Bernadette Peters in the titular role of Dolly Levi, famously originated in 1964 by the inimitable Carol Channing and played by just about every other leading lady of the stage in the years since, including Barbra Streisand on film in 1969.
Bette won the 2017 Tony for her universally worshipped, clownish, and gut-busting star turn; few evenings in the theatre have ever been as electrifying. Donna, a two-time Tony winner and five-time nominee herself, won my heart for her virtuosic turns on Tuesday nights; no one nails the voice, comedy, and moves (she could work that passerelle!) equally as well as she.
And now Bernadette is gleefully giving a career highlight performance, officially opening last night, showcasing her trademark flippant fragility, idiosyncratic vocal chops, and impeccably muted comic timing. This Dolly is her Dolly—less zany, more steady and grounded, and simply a joy to watch. When the revival was announced, I was excited for Bette, but wished Bernadette had been cast; now that wish has come true, and it was well worth the wait. Bernadette does what she does best: breaking your heart while making you laugh. It’s a rare talent, and a privilege to see such a seasoned performer take on such an iconic role.
The secret of this “Hello, Dolly!”, however, is not just the strength of the woman at the center of the show, but also the strong corps of supporting characters and exquisite ensemble. Nearly a year into the run, Gavin Creel as Cornelius Hackl and Kate Baldwin as Irene Molloy are better than ever. Mr. Creel, who won the 2017 Tony for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical, continues to grow in his role, oozing charm without sacrificing depth, and radiating the infectious optimism that lies at the heart of the show. His performance alone is worth the price of admission. (Sadly, due to a back injury requiring surgery, Mr. Creel is now out of the show until May; Santino Fontana takes over the role March 13th)
Victor Garber replaces David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder, the “well-known unmarried half-a-millionaire” of Yonkers, New York and object of Dolly’s affection. A veteran of the stage who hasn’t been in a musical since winning a 1994 Tony Award for playing Applegate in “Damn Yankees”, Mr. Garber does a fine job opposite Ms. Peters. His Horace, like her Dolly, is less cartoonish (that is not a criticism of their predecessors); more gruff than Mr. Pierce, Mr. Garber reveals his Horace slowly throughout the show, but wins your heart in the end.
English actor Charlie Stemp replaces Taylor Trensch (now starring in “Dear Evan Hansen”) as Cornelius’ goofy teenage sidekick, Barnaby Tucker, and Molly Griggs replaces Beanie Feldstein (who was a breakout star of this production) as Minnie Fay, Irene’s hat shop assistant. These two changes bring the most noticeable overall change to the production.
Mr. Stemp, who made a splash on the West End in 2016 headlining a revival of “Half a Sixpence”, is a terrific dancer; to showcase his talent, choreographer Warren Carlyle has reworked whole portions of “Dancing” and the “Polka” contest, giving a new boost to these ensemble numbers. For her part, Ms. Griggs finds new nuance in the hysterical characterization of Minnie that Ms. Feldstein created and nailed (big shoes to fill), keeping the role fresh and making it her own.
Nearly a year into its run, “Hello, Dolly!” is buoyantly better, brighter, and tighter than on opening night. That’s a testament to the knockout cast and the incredible production team behind them. It’s also a testament to the genius of the material. In this difficult time for our country and for our world, “Dolly!” is a much needed salve and, hands down, the best musical comedy on Broadway right now. Do yourself a favor and get tickets. You won’t regret it.
Bottom Line: Nearly a year into its run, “Hello, Dolly!” is buoyantly better, brighter, and tighter than on opening night. Bernadette Peters gives a stellar, steadier, and more grounded performance as Dolly Levi, alongside replacements Victor Garber, Charlie Stemp, and Molly Griggs—and Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin, and the ensemble, are better than ever. This is the best musical comedy on Broadway. If you haven't seen it, get tickets now; if you have seen it, it's worth checking back in.
225 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: April 20, 2017