Bette Midler won our love in “Hello, Dolly!” just by wiggling her pinky finger. Donna Murphy, who has slipped into Dolly Gallagher Levi’s trim little boots while Bette is on vacation (and will continue to play the role for one performance a week once Midler returns), has to work harder, earning our affection with a beautifully acted, powerfully sung and earnestly felt performance. Best of all, she has the comic chops to laugh her way into this iconic role.
In the brief three months since it opened, this pristine production of Jerry Herman’s 1964 musical, in a staging from director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle (with a hat-tip to Gower Champion’s original production), has become smoother, slicker and more sure of itself. The choral singing has achieved celestial status, the waiters at the Harmonia Gardens are in full gallop, and all the performances have grown and flourished. (David Hyde Pierce’s comic contributions to the role of that Yonkers skinflint Horace Vandergelder have us in stitches.) Even Santo Loquasto’s delicious sherbet-colored costumes look brighter and tastier.
Under the musical direction of Andy Einhorn, a wonderful pit orchestra turns out one after another of Herman’s melodic show tunes, each one of which earns a collective gasp of delighted recognition from the audience. “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” brilliantly choreographed, had the house captivated. Kate Baldwin wins hearts with the romantic “Ribbons Down My Back.” And the squealing young’uns played by Taylor Trensch (as Barnaby Tucker), Melanie Moore (Ermengarde) and Jennifer Simard (Ernestina) are skilled at getting laughs.
But it isn’t until a soul-baring Dolly steels herself to bid farewell to the spirit of her late husband and gives herself up to “Before the Parade Passes By” that Murphy has a chance to show what she’s made of — pure gold.
Leading into the song with a nostalgic visit to the old neighborhood where Dolly and her late husband had found happiness, Murphy reveals the depths of Dolly’s very real concerns about being a widow of a certain age forced to live by her wits to survive. She’s always been a thinking actress, and here she allows us to watch Dolly’s struggle with the terrifying thought of coming out of hiding and rejoining the human race.
Pierce has a great time playing Horace Vandergelder, happily roaring at his clerks (“Don’t forget to put the lid on the sheep dip!”) and smugly divulging the secret of his success in the Act II opener, “Penny in My Pocket.” As his senior clerk, Cornelius Hackl, Gavin Creel reveals the terrific form that won him this season’s Tony for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical. There are no slouches in the rest of this well-drilled company, either.
Audiences may have flocked to this revival because of the divine Miss M, but Murphy’s star performance and the overall excellence of the production should satisfy anyone who loves a big, Broadway show and is interested in the musical as a popular art form. With its captivating book and memorable show tunes, “Dolly” validates the theatrical form of which Herman (who turns 86 tomorrow) is a master. It might even be the quintessential Broadway musical, the kind of audience-pleaser that will never go out of fashion.