The audience claps at the overture and whistles at the set; and when Bette Midler makes her entrance, everyone falls into a dead swoon. “Hello, Dolly!” is back on Broadway, and it looks so fresh, you want to pinch its cheek.
Jerry Herman’s 1964 musical comedy is one of the great audience shows, so it’s a relief to report that helmer Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle have done a great restoration job on the old girl, while refraining from the urge to tart her up for modern tastes. The costumes may be more colorful and the set pieces fussier, but the musical exuberance of the initial production survives intact. So does scribe Michael Stewart’s cheerful message (poached from Thornton Wilder) that it’s never too late to come in from the cold and march in the great parade of life.
Everyone who takes on the role of that meddlesome matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi tries to make it her own. Carol Channing played Dolly’s larger-than-life personality. Pearl Bailey captured her feisty humor. Ethel Merman just planted both feet on the stage and sang to the second balcony.
With her great pipes and sly-puss wit, Bette Midler might have played Dolly at any stage of her career. But at the end of the day, she instinctively understands the avid thirst for life that prompts Dolly’s comic desperation and gives depth to her character. (At one preview performance, she actually choked up when she started to sing “Before the Parade Passes By.”) As for connecting with an audience, the Divine Miss M knows every shtick in the book.
This is one production, by the way, in which that grumpy skinflint Horace Vandergelder isn’t completely upstaged by the star. David Hyde Pierce, looking a hilarious fright in a hideous wig, is a delightful curmudgeon as Horace. For his efforts, his special prize is the solo “Penny in My Pocket,” the rarely (if ever) performed Act II curtain-raiser that offers a touching insight into Horace’s character and endears him to the audience.
Although none of the secondary players will knock you out, Zaks has cast an entirely watchable cast of reliables, including Gavin Creel’s loose-limbed Cornelius Hackl. Warren Carlyle has done meticulous work on referencing the original Gower Champion choreography — to the point of emulating his cakewalk strut. A terrific ensemble of singer-dancers has the familiar moves down cold and everyone puts heart to hoof for “Put on Your Sunday Clothes.”
It looks like a lot of gelt went into this production, with its top-drawer list of creatives. Santo Loquasto’s color-saturated sets and costumes look sweet enough to eat, and lighting designer Natasha Katz keeps the show at high noon. But in the end, it’s the music supervision of Andy Einhorn that makes this revival sing. In the hands of this company, the song lyrics are clear as a trolley bell, and the music sounds as if a parade has come to town.