Bernadette Peters’ return to Broadway puts the “doll” back in “Hello, Dolly!” Tiny, trim, and in terrific voice, the Tony Award-winning diva tops off previous triumphs like “Mack and Mabel” and “Sunday in the Park with George” with yet another beautifully sung (and sensitively felt) star performance, stepping into the show that Bette Midler turned into a smash.
Peters is no yenta, so don’t expect to find Midler’s busybody shtick in her version of “I Put My Hand In.” This Dolly’s personal style is to twinkle and charm people into getting her way. (Her “So Long, Dearie” is an irresistible gem.) She also has the acting chops to moisten eyeballs when she entreats her late husband to bless her renouncement of widowhood and rejoin the human race in “Before the Parade Passes By.” Maybe it’s just star savvy, but Peters seemed genuinely overcome when the audience at a recent preview performance raised the roof with their cheers.
The firecracker star is partnered with a new leading man in Victor Garber as Horace Vandergelder, the skinflint Yonkers merchant Dolly has set her cap for. Garber has solid Broadway history, having originated roles in “Sweeney Todd,” “Noises Off,” and “Lend Me a Tenor.” At first blush, he seems a bit too leading-man handsome to play an old grouch like Horace. But because he’s actually kind of (ahem!) sexy, Dolly’s manipulations don’t seem quite so mercenary – and Horace’s eventual capitulation to her charm offensive doesn’t come as such a character-bending shock. Helpfully, the addition of the trunk song “Penny in My Pocket” as a second act curtain-raiser gives Garber his special opportunity to lock eyes with the audience and engage us on his own terms.
The secondary couple in Jerry Herman’s best-beloved show are beautifully matched and the supporting players are secure in their roles. Kate Baldwin sets hearts afire as Mrs. Irene Molloy, the beautiful young widow who is ready to attract another husband by wearing “Ribbons Down My Back,” one of the most romantic songs in the Herman song book. Gavin Creel is quite the catch as Cornelius Hackl, the humble store clerk with the heart of a lover. A stalwart of all the ensemble numbers, the long-limbed dancer-actor, who won a Tony for his turn in the role, finds his métier in “Dancing.”
A new addition to the cast, Charlie Stemp (“Half a Sixpence”), seems a bit too broad in the comic role of Cornelius’s sidekick, Barnaby Tucker, although those squealing girls Ermengarde (Melanie Moore) and Ernestina (Jennifer Simard) match him in energy.
As usually happens when a director (in this case, Jerry Zaks) and a choreographer (Warren Carlyle) keep a sharp eye on their baby, the overall production of this classic never looked better. The ensemble peaks in that great song-and-dance company number, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” — but honestly, just sashaying across the stage in Santo Loquasto’s scrumptious sherbet-colored costumes constitutes an eyeful.
It’s hard to review this show without mentioning the audience, which is positively besotted with their “Dolly.” They just don’t make ’em like this, anymore, and we all know it, so standing ovations are very much in order.