by JK Clarke
If Hello, Dolly! were edited down to a mere 10 or 15 minute version of the glorious set piece featuring the title song, it would stand up on its own, as fulfilling and satisfying for an audience as the entire show. It’s that good: Jerry Herman’s (Mame) good-natured song celebrating camaraderie, featuring a fantastic hook and an exuberant melody; high-kicking, leaping, tray-balancing waiters; and a singing and strutting performance by the lead that showcases her considerable and long-developed theatrical chops—everything one can ask for in a show. But what’s wonderful about the current run on Broadway of Hello, Dolly!, directed by four-time Tony winner and Broadway legend Jerry Zaks (Guys and Dolls, Six Degrees of Separation), and featuring Hollywood and Broadway icon, the starlet of starlets, Bernadette Peters, in the title role, is that that immaculate number is bookended by a delightful show choc-a-bloc with top-notch performances.
Hello, Dolly! doesn’t dive very deep. And it’s not meant to. Set in New York City and Yonkers in 1885, it’s the story of multiple characters looking for love. Dolly Gallagher Levi (Bernadette Peters) is a hustler of the highest order. Recently widowed, she manages countless services from matchmaker to myriad other sorts of “meddling” for financial gain, with a business card at the ready to advertise each one: dance instruction, mandolin lessons, ear piercing, pierced-ear re-plugging, corsets “re-boned”. . . and so on. Her real ambition, however, is to marry shopkeeper Horace Vandergelder (charming Victor Garber), for whom she is working as a matchmaker.
Meanwhile, secondary characters are being brought together under Dolly’s eye and through her machinations: Ambrose Kemper (Will Burton) and Vandergelder’s loud and whiny niece, Ermegarde (Melanie Moore, whose wail could crack glassware) are trying to prove their worthiness to her uncle. Then there’s Vandergelder’s two naive shop-hands, Cornelius Hackl (Santino Fontana) and Barnaby Tucker (a delightful and more-than-able hoofer Charlie Stemp), who are out on the town looking for love. They find it in the form of milliner Irene Molloy (Kate Baldwin, whose singing, as always, is exquisite) and her shop assistant Minnie Fay (Molly Griggs) whose meet cute with Barnaby Tucker is, well, awfully cute.
With a light and sweet storyline, as well as a terrifically talented ensemble of singers and dancers, the production is made magical by Santo Loquasto’s evocative period backdrops and absolutely stunning vivid and detailed costumes (particularly Dolly’s countless, breathtaking ensembles) that bring vibrance to the era. And Warren Carlyle’s choreography (based on Gower Champion’s original), pulls the whole thing together, breathing life into it. Every musical number is festive and exuberant: a visual masterpiece. Even without the star performance, this would be a powerful and pleasing production.
But Hello, Dolly! has always been defined by its leading lady. The outsized Carol Channing originated the role in 1964 (and reprised it in several subsequent revivals) and it has since been led by Mary Martin (West End, 1965), Pearl Bailey (1975), Barbra Streisand (1969 film) and, most recently, Bette Midler who helmed this production last year, landing the Best Actress Tony, among others. Arguably, most of these leading ladies could be said to be hard, overbearing types, whose personalities would lend credence to Horace Vandergelder’s reluctance to marry the widow Levi. Not so with Ms. Peters, who brings a softer, slightly more tragic edge to Dolly. With her kewpie doll adorableness and softer demeanor, it’s easy to understand why Dolly is so beloved by her community and why Vandergelder’s resistance (in this production) is negligible. Ms. Peters’ theatrical savoir faire and relaxed countenance breath a naturalistic air into her character. She’s having a terrific time doing the big numbers, engaging in winking asides with front row audience members and generally maintaining a “we’re all just having fun here” attitude that creates a joyful aura both on stage and in the seats. She has taken this already wildly successful production and made Dolly her own; and in her hands it looks effortless.
Top to bottom, it’s a delightful, incredibly satisfying production that leaves audiences grinning ear to ear. As the staff at the Harmonia Gardens would sing in chorus: You’re lookin’ swell, Dolly.
Hello, Dolly! Open run at The Shubert Theatre (225 West 44th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). www.hellodollyonbroadway.com
Photos: Julieta Cervantes