With Hello, Dolly!, Broadway Welcomes Bernadette Peters Back Where She Belongs
When Bernadette Peters, decked out in a red evening gown and a halo of feathers, descends the staircase for the iconic title number of Hello Dolly! at the Shubert Theatre, there's no doubt in anyone's mind that Broadway royalty has just entered the room. It's one of the many memorable, unmissable moments of her triumphant return to the Broadway stage in the role of Dolly. Peters joins a terrific cast featuring Gavin Creel, Kate Baldwin, and Victor Garber, who now takes on the role of Dolly's cranky, hard-to-win-over love interest, Horace Vandergelder.
Since Carol Channing originated the role of Dolly in Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's 1964 musical (based on Thornton Wilder's lesser-known 1954 play The Matchmaker and later made into a movie starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau), Dolly's story has become familiar to audiences on Broadway and beyond. Set in late 19th-century New York City and Yonkers, the musical follows a day in the life of Dolly Gallagher Levi, who, following the death of her husband, makes a living providing all sorts of services, including pairing up unmarried people. But she's tired and wants to find a match for herself, so she comes up with a scheme to win the heart of the wealthy owner of a Yonkers hay-and-feed store, Horace Vandergelder, who happens to be looking for a wife. She sets up a rendezvous in New York for him and a voluptuous, uncouth woman named Ernestina (a hysterical Jennifer Simard) with the intent of crashing their dinner and winning his heart by default.
Meanwhile, Vandergelder's two employees, Cornelius Hackl (Creel in an exuberant Tony-winning performance) and Barnaby Tucker (Charlie Stemp, playing the clueless sidekick to perfection), decide to ditch work and find their own romantic adventures in New York. The two near-penniless bachelors pair up with hat-shop owner Irene Molloy (the golden-voiced Kate Baldwin) and her assistant, Minnie Fay (an irrepressibly funny Molly Griggs), and reluctantly take them to dinner at New York's ritzy Harmonia Gardens Restaurant (gorgeous, detailed set design by Santo Loquasto). There, a chance encounter with Dolly and Vandergelder sets in motion a series of madcap events that end with all misunderstandings resolved and happy matches made.
The Jerry Zaks-directed production has made its own happy match with the show and its new lead — the vivacious, ethereal Peters, who has us in her palm the instant she lowers her newspaper in the opening scene and sings "I Put My Hand In." Entering in a bustled indigo dress (Loquasto's prismatic costumes dazzle throughout), she glides across the stage and gives us a welcoming side glance as conductor Justin Hornback's orchestra provides the music for the ensemble that swirls around her (graceful choreography by Warren Carlyle). This is the theater magic we come to Broadway for, and it delivers right from the get-go.
Joining Peters is Garber in a decidedly less grumpy portrayal of Vandergelder than audiences may be accustomed to. His rendition of the Act 2 opener, "Penny in My Pocket," doesn't deliver the tight-fisted rapture you'd expect from a miserly businessman, and Garber's grandfatherly manner and natural charm tamp down Vandergelder's crotchetiness. This may be a conscious choice on Garber's part in portraying a character who wants a wife merely so she can do the housework and make his life comfortable, a subject he and a troupe of male ensemble members sing about in "It Takes a Woman." The satirical but inarguably sexist number gets fewer laughs nowadays, a sign that the musical has probably outlived some of its topical humor.
Creel and Stemp eschew the male chauvinism with their comical duet in "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," followed by Baldwin's gorgeous rendition of "Ribbons Down My Back", as lovely a tune as you'll ever hear performed onstage. Will Burton and Melanie Moore round out the main cast as young artist Ambrose Kemper and his prospective bride, Ermengarde, whose ear-piercing puling is one of the less appealing aspects of the show. Special mention goes to Simard, who brings the house down in the restaurant scene with her unnervingly gauche Ernestina. Garber himself almost can't help breaking character while she does her ridiculously funny "hoochie-coochie" bit. The whole scene is icing on the cake of this scrumptious production.
And then there's Peters. This superlative Dolly! only benefits from her presence. Taking on the title role from Bette Midler, she brings charm and touching poignancy to Dolly's character. While displaying brassy hutzpah in numbers like "Motherhood," Peters knows how to tug at our heartstrings better than anyone. This talent is on full display in the opening of "Before the Parade Passes By," when Dolly (gently illuminated by Natasha Katz's lighting) looks out into the audience and asks her deceased husband, Ephraim, for a sign to let her know its OK for her to try to find love again. In an otherwise rollicking musical, Peters gives us a new, beautifully moving portrait of a well-known character, and it only takes a moment for us to fall in love with her and Dolly! all over again.