Bette Midler In “Hello,Dolly!” At the Shubert Theatre, Friday, April 7th, 2017, Reviewed
Has there ever been a truly great Dolly Levi? Carol Channing in the 1965 “Hello, Dolly!”? I didn’t see it but I saw her in 1995 and she was too old for the role, Barbra Streisand in the 69 movie? She was twenty seven years old and too young. Jerry Herman wrote the role with Ethel Merman in mind, so maybe she was great in the 60s. And Pearl Bailey in the 1970 all black production won a Tony. But in our day and age, if Streisand won’t reprise Dolly Levi for Broadway, then Bette Midler was to the manor born. It should have been an easy slam dunk and it wasn’t, at least the evening performance, Friday, April 7th, I saw it, it wasn’t running on all cylinders and when it did, during a storming second act performance of the title song, it rewarded every promise you thought Bette had made in taking the role. Sure, I caught it in previews, and sure, it felt like a work in progress, a role she hadn’t quite nailed. Still, if Bette hadn’t nailed it there was no one at all in the supporting cast of miscast serviceable performers to begin to make up for the learning curve.
“Hello, Dolly,” the book based upon Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker,” itself based upon a mid-1800s play by Austrian Johann Nestroy (it actually goes back further) at its essence is a French boudoir farce by other means and that means timing is everything. The widowed Dolly Levi pursues the widower Horace Vandergelder, who is pursuing the widow Irene Malloy while playing match wrecker to his orphaned niece. Meanwhile, Horace’s store clerks are closing up the Yonkers establishment for a day in Manhattan… and they won’t be home till they kiss a girl, all taking place within 24 life changing hours.
With one of the great Broadway scores to push the plot forward, I count maybe EIGHT songs that are part of my American lexicon, and Bette Midler who has the brassiness of an Ethel Merman and the wittiness of Carol Channing, should be so on top of this show. From her entrance (sitting on a tram reading a paper) on, she is under used, they should be screaming her from the rooftops and yet there is a quietness that doesn’t work on “Dancing” and doesn’t work on the hugely felt ballad “Before The Parade Passes By” either. I think she doesn’t quite have the role down and with eleven days to go, she doesn’t have to. I don’t see why she isn’t shaking the stage, perhaps she is too professional to do a number on that fourth wall, to address us and engage. Neither Dolly nor Bette i s fully formed in this strangely unrealized performance.
Bette is still a hundred times better than anyone else in the musical. David Hyde Pierce is an astounding piece of miscasting, he doesn’t have the strength to give Dolly Levi a fair fight as Horace. Walter Matthau played the role in the movie (directed by Gene Kelly, by the way), and he was so funny on “It Takes A Woman” (“A husky woman”) that his gruffness was charming, you could just about see what Dolly would see in him. Pierce doesn’t have enough presence in the role, he can sing it, but he can’t project it. Robert Morse performed the role of idiot apprentice, the younger store clerk, in the movie “The Matchmaker” and if he was the right age (I saw him last year in “The Front Page” and he stole it), he could have performed wonders. Michael Crawford (who would go on to be the original Phantom on Broadway) was in the Streisand movie as the elder clerk and he was both giggly schoolboy and serious love interest, I don’t know much about this Cornelius because, with a career making role in the hottest show on Broadway, he disappears completely. Tommy Tune played the penniless artist in the movie, Tune is, of course, one of Broadway’s greatest dancers, the artist and the niece make no impression on Broadway whatsoever. Directed by the great Jerry Zaks, his timing is off. He doesn’t get his laughs and he doesn’t get his poignancy, his cast aren’t bad or lazy, they are all mistakes of casting with the exception of Kate Baldwin’s Irene Maolloy, who is an Irish rose of the first order yet not nearly enough.
The book itself is great (the movie was better, it fixed the few holes and dumped a couple of lesser songs), and presented a self fulling 24 hours of mayhem til the finale. Act One builds to a parade, act two to a dance competition, structurally it is the Broadway Musical as art form even with the holes, so why isn’t it constructed properly? Why doesn’t it lift you off? Is it the lack of sparks between the leads (all of them?), did Bette need more room to work her magic? Was the rest of the cast so wrong it was asking too much of her? Is she too old at 71 for the exhausting role? During the splendid “Hello, Dolly” at the Harmonia Gardens (on 14th street), the show finally comes together, Dolly dances with the waiters, takes a breather on the side, embraces her life with every fiber of her being, and finally gets the standing ovation she deserves. It was enough to be worth the price of admission alone, enough to make you dream of the performance she is still working out