By Brian Scott Lipton
When it comes to Jerry Zaks’ ultra-exuberant revival of the classic 1964 musical, “Hello, Dolly!,” now at the Shubert Theatre, you can bet on Bette Midler to hand in one of the great star-making performances of all time: the ideal blending of a long-honed persona and a fabulous character: Dolly Gallagher Levi: a meddling, sometimes exasperating and ultimately loveable woman who treats others’ lives with sometimes careless abandon, while carefully plotting her own.
But if you’re lucky enough to go on Tuesday nights (and selected weeks) to see two-time Tony Award winner Donna Murphy in the role – and I do mean lucky – you will witness our finest musical theater actress at the peak of her powers, creating a full-bodied character, commanding the stage when the spotlight is solely on her, using previously unseen comic abilities to keep us roaring loudly, and interacting freely and joyously with a spirited ensemble, who seem thrilled to be on the same stage with her.
As originally conceived by Thornton Wilder in his play, “The Matchmaker” and then re-shaped by librettist Michael Stewart and composer-lyricist Jerry Herman (whose score remains one of Broadway’s finest), Dolly can be easily transformed by the personality and skills of whichever star takes on the title role. Murphy opts for stressing Dolly’s Irish roots (one suspect she may be an immigrant) and her tireless, daily re-inventing herself just to make a meager living. One immediately understands why she would marry the crusty Horace Vandergelder (the spectacular David Hyde Pierce) solely for his money, although the two have enough chemistry that their ultimate pairing comes off as a “like” match if not a love one.
Murphy is also a stronger singer and dancer than Midler, although the role often insists that she tones down both her gifts. (It’s the ensemble who gets to really show off their terpsichorean talents in such show-stopping numbers as “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “The Waiter’s Gallop”.) But choreographer Warren Carlyle and director Jerry Zaks do allow Murphy her moments to cut loose in both departments; she moves splendidly through “Hello, Dolly!” and her voice is allowed to unleash its formidable power in “Before the Parade Passes By” and “So Long, Dearie.”
Zaks is also to be praised for pairing his leading ladies with a cast that can stand up to – or at least beside – them! Foremost among them is Pierce, who originally looks like he wandered off the stage of a Gilbert & Sullivan production, but who delivers a deliciously quirky yet honest interpretation of Horace that has the audience in stitches. (He’s also a fine singer, as evidenced by the show’s one new addition, the second-act solo, “Penny in My Pocket.”)
The beautiful Kate Baldwin is simply sublime, both funny and feisty, as widow Irene Molloy, Horace’s intended bride, and her rendition of the gorgeous “Ribbons Down My Back” is practically show-stopping; Broadway newcomer Beanie Feldstein is simply delicious as her innocent assistant Minnie Fay; Tony winner Gavin Creel and Taylor Trensch win over every person in the audience with their gee-whiz charm as their equally naïve suitors (and Horace’s suffering clerks) Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker; and the inventive Jennifer Simard is hysterical in a purposefully ridiculous turn as the faux-heiress Ernestina Money. And in their own way, Santo Loquasto’s spectacular costumes and sets, steal the show from everybody on stage.
So, here’s the bottom line: audiences who might have wanted to see Midler in the title role will not be disappointed, they’ll probably be tempted to say “Hello, Donna” again and again.
Hello, Dolly! – Shubert Theatre, West 44 Street, www.hellodollyonbroadway.com