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You experience many things while watching the Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre. Laughter at the broad, hysterical comedy. Joy upon hearing Jerry Herman’s gorgeous score. Wonderment at the eye-popping costumes on constant display. But now that Bernadette Peters has taken over the title role, for the first time you’ll also shed tears.
That’s because the veteran, two-time Tony Award-winning performer has brought a poignancy to the production that wasn’t quite in evidence with her predecessor, Bette Midler. Midler was a powerhouse presence to be sure, bringing to the part all of her star wattage and formidable comic chops. Her starring turn, which resulted in sell-out performances and huge box-office grosses, became instantly iconic. But you never felt as much concern and tenderness toward her Dolly as you do for this one.
Peters, of course, is no slouch when it comes to being an iconic presence herself, considering that her career as a theater star has lasted a half-century since her breakout performances in 1968’s George M! and off-Broadway’s Dames at Sea. Since then she’s delivered acclaimed turns in such musicals as On the Town, Mack & Mabel, Sunday in the Park with George, Song and Dance, Into the Woods, Annie Get Your Gun, A Little Night Music and Follies. If anyone could be considered musical theater royalty, it’s her.
She pulls off another triumph here, infusing her Dolly Gallagher Levi with a pathos that, while making the character less a force of nature, makes her far more relatable. When her Dolly speaks to her dead husband Ephraim, such as when she implores him to let her go so she can get on with her life and be happy, it’s not just a prelude to the big, first-act closing number “Before the Parade Passes By” but also a tearful plea from the heart.
Which is not to say that she falls short of the role’s comedic demands. Her performance is less vivacious than Midler’s, but no less hilarious. With her deadpan comic line readings and subtle bits of physical business — the latter especially shown off in the riotously farcical hat shop scene in which she does not just a double, but a triple, take — she gets all the necessary laughs and more without lapsing into excessive shtick. Her vocals are equally stellar, and she looks sensational slinking down those Harmonia Gardens Restaurant stairs in that fabulous red dress and feathered headdress.
Victor Garber, another Broadway veteran whose musical theater credits include Sweeney Todd and Damn Yankees, has taken over for David Hyde Pierce as Dolly’s comic foil Horace Vandergelder. Garber doesn’t get nearly as many laughs as his predecessor, but few actors could, since Hyde Pierce is a finely tuned comedy machine. But if Garber’s more restrained performance is less gut-busting, it’s also less of a caricature. His Horace is more emotionally vulnerable, making us care more deeply about him and Dolly getting together.
The other significant cast changes (Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin continue in their Tony winning and nominated roles respectively, and have only gotten better with time) are Charlie Stemp as Barnaby Tucker and Molly Griggs as Minnie Fay.
Stemp, a 24-year-old British actor who won raves for his London performances in Half a Sixpence and Dick Whittington and here makes his Broadway debut, is a revelation. Effortlessly charming and displaying pitch-perfect comic timing, the charismatic performer is also one hell of a dancer. So much so, in fact, that he’s been given a dazzling solo in the “Dancing” number that wasn’t there before. Catch him now, and you’ll be able to say that you saw a star in the making. Griggs, who’s replaced Beanie Feldstein, proves no less an adorable laugh-getter than her predecessor and has excellent chemistry with Stemp. You’ll be seeing a lot more of her in the future as well.
Jerry Zaks‘ perfectly tooled staging hasn’t lost a step, dancing or otherwise, since the show opened 10 months ago. Gower Champion’s original 1964 Broadway production — starring Carol Channing followed by a host of luminaries including Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller and Ethel Merman — played 2,844 performances. Assuming that it can keep up this level of star casting, there’s no reason not to think that this revival can’t match it.
Venue: Sam S. Shubert Theatre, New York
Cast: Bernadette Peters, Victor Garber, Gavin Creel, Kate Baldwin, Charlie Stemp, Molly Griggs, Will Burton, Melanie Moore, Jennifer Simard, Kevin Ligon
Director: Jerry Zaks
Music & lyrics: Jerry Herman
Book: Michael Stewart, based on the play The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder
Set & costume designer: Santo Loquasto
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Music director & supervisor: Andy Einhorn
Orchestrations: Larry Hochman
Choreographer: Warren Carlyle
Original production director & choreographer: Gower Champion
Executive producers: Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson
Presented by Scott Rudin, Roy Furman, James L. Nederlander, Eli Bush, Universal Stage Productions, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Heni Koenigsberg, Terry Allen Kramer, Seth A. Goldstein, The John Gore Organization, Daryl Roth, The Araca Group, Len Blavatnik, Eric Falkenstein, Ruth Hendel, Independent Presenters Network, Peter May, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Jane Bergere, Scott M. Delman, Wendy Federman, Stephanie P. McClelland, Anita Waxman, Al Nocciolino, Spring Sirkin, Barbara Freitag, John Mara Jr. & Benjamin Simpson
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