'Hello, Dolly!': Theater Review

Hello Dolly! Production Still Donna Murphy - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes
Hello, Donna!

In a savvy stroke of alternate casting, two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy breathes her own distinctive brand of joy and generosity into the blockbuster Broadway revival.

Alternate casting doesn't get more deluxe than Donna Murphy, who's been stepping in during vacation weeks for Bette Midler and will continue to play the title role at Tuesday performances of Hello, Dolly! Midler received a welcome virtually unparalleled on Broadway in recent years, making Jerry Zaks' sumptuous revival the event of the 2016-17 season. Molding her star persona and her unique rapport with her audience to fit the title role of Jerry Herman's enduring 1964 good-time musical, she sent ticket demand through the roof. Murphy's fame might be more concentrated among theater lovers, but she brings her own megawatt glow; her peerless musical-comedy technique, deep-dish characterization and supple vocals are like a new coat of lacquer on a perfect production.

Oh, and let's not forget her nimble dancing. Murphy cuts a willowy figure and can move with slinky grace or goofy exuberance, as the moment demands. When her Dolly Gallagher Levi hoofs it up during the off-the-charts uplifting title song with the waiters at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, rekindling old affections with every last one of them, it's safe to assume few in the audience will feel cheated by seeing the show on Midler's night off.

"I could stay here forever," vamps Murphy in the middle of a soft-shoe dance break flanked by handsome fellers. "I'm in a heaven sandwich!" That enthusiasm was contagious at a special Sunday-night performance packed with press and New York theaterati. The audience's roaring response from Murphy's first entrance to her final bow was only fitting for the return after a considerable absence of a two-time Tony Award winner and bona fide Broadway treasure, tackling her most comedic role since Wonderful Town in 2003. Cognoscenti also will have noted the poignancy of Murphy — whose husband, actor Shawn Elliott, died in March 2016 — playing a widow stepping forward to stake a fresh claim on life with renewed tenacity. That association made her delivery of "Before the Parade Passes By," full of yearning and determination, especially stirring.

The experience of seeing both Midler and Murphy defies comparison. Midler brings an intimate relationship with the audience honed over almost five decades of superstardom across multiple mediums. She's winking at us from behind the character, and we can't help but love her for it. Murphy also lets us know she's having a blast up there, but she does so while shaping a full-bodied character more distinct from herself. The musical remains a star showcase, but one that here nudges the material closer to its origins as a Thornton Wilder play.

From her first number, "I Put My Hand In," in which Dolly explains her philosophy as a professional meddler, matchmaker and Jill of all trades, Murphy crafts a character who's a consummate scammer. A brash opportunist with a brassy, down-to-earth manner that can transform in an instant to cultivated mock sophistication, she's able to manipulate any situation to her advantage. But alongside those qualities sits a generosity, an infectious joie de vivre that touches everyone she encounters — even David Hyde Pierce's hilariously grouchy Horace Vandergelder, despite his futile attempts to resist.

With so much attention justifiably focused around the wonderful Midler, any appreciation of this production risks shortchanging the countless other fine elements. Murphy's warm connection with everyone else on the stage seems to free the entire cast, from principals to chorus, allowing them to become more animated — like parts of a fully integrated ensemble rather than deferential satellites orbiting around a supernova.

This was my third time seeing the revival and the invaluable Pierce just gets better and better. His priceless comic timing with the dialogue and marvelously quirky line readings are no surprise, but the sly physicality of his performance also gets laughs in all sorts of unexpected places. Horace's gruffly unapologetic male chauvinism is at its most amusing in his number "It Takes a Woman," but it also comes through with twitchy spasms of irritation just about every time Pierce shares the stage with Murphy, as Dolly effortlessly gets the better of him. The two actors' chemistry is bliss.

As the younger couples whose haphazard romantic adventures get dragged along in Dolly's wake, Kate Baldwin and Gavin Creel have become looser and more playful in their shy courtship, while Beanie Feldstein (the younger sister of Jonah Hill and one of the most enchanting discoveries of the Broadway season) and Taylor Trensch spin comic gold together. The interplay of Murphy with all four of them during the impromptu "Dancing" lesson has a lovely spontaneity — like a mischievous gift from a woman familiar with the medicinal benefits of love and happiness and eager to spread them around. In terms of couple dynamics, mention must be made also of the ebullient back and forth between Creel and Trensch as Horace's underpaid store clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby. The loopy spin that Trensch puts on fey, wide-eyed Barnaby's reaction lines is a constant hoot.

What makes this revival so satisfying is that it goes beyond the rewards of a champion star turn to deliver pleasure in every aspect. That includes the candy-colored beauty of Santo Loquasto's sets and costumes (nowhere more so than in the explosive vibrancy of "Put on Your Sunday Clothes"); the bright cheeriness of Natasha Katz's lighting; the bobbing heads and frisky gallops of Warren Carlyle's choreography, acknowledging a debt to Gower Champion's indelible work on the original production; and the euphoria of Larry Hochman's orchestrations, doing full justice to Herman's buoyant songs.

This shot of pure, old-fashioned Broadway escapism plays like a tonic for troubled times — to be imbibed the same way Murphy's Dolly devours a turkey leg, floating on a cloud of ecstasy like Snuffles, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon dog. If the scant availability and sky-high premium prices for Midler put you off, grab a ticket for one of Murphy's performances instead. You won't be disappointed.

Venue: Sam S. Shubert Theatre, New York
Cast: Bette Midler, David Hyde Pierce, Gavin Creel, Kate Baldwin, Taylor Trensch, Beanie Feldstein, 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