Bette Midler is Bette Midler, but by golly she is also Dolly. In this new production of the venerable Jerry Herman musical the iconic star is a fan-pleaser as expected, but she also nails the character of charismatic, husband-hunting widow Dolly Gallagher Levi. There is a moment early in the show when Midler evokes a genuine note of sadness. But melancholy is not what this extravaganza is about.
Midler is an expert in comedy and timing, and although her voice doesn’t scale the heights, she milks every bit of inherent hilarity to the hilt whether singing or talking. Yes, she mugs a good deal playing to the adoring crowd, occasionally giving knowing glances to the audience in the midst of a scene. And when she struts along the runway in the show’s key numbers, it as if the musical were tailor made for her, and there is a guarantee than any audience will go wild with applause, as happens even when we first see her. Her performance is the main reason for paying scaled up ticket prices.
The weakest part of “Hello, Dolly!” has always been portions of the book that involve the exploits of Cornelius and Barnaby, employees of the marriage-targeted, penny-pinching Horace Vandergelder. Other obstacles are the lumpy, senseless arrest and courtroom scene. That’s heavy lifting for the book by Michael Stewart in the show based on Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker.” The problem is addressed under the direction of Jerry Zaks by going all-out to exaggerate the characters of Cornelius and Barnaby so that they are played primarily for laughs and etched skillfully in that ultra-comic approach by Gaven Creel (Cornelius) and Taylor Trensch (Barnaby), who are broadly amusing.
As for Vandergelder, as played by David Hyde Pierce, he is a mainstay of the production—very funny every bit of the way with his bluster and skillful reading of funny lines. One doesn’t find much chemistry between him and Midler. But that’s hardly the point. “Dolly!” is a bundle of entertainment and humor and honest sentiment and ultimate believability are not what this star vehicle seems meant to deliver. For example, the funny eating scene with Midler getting laughs from her incessant devouring starts in the restaurant setting but inexplicably winds up in the courtroom scene.
This staging offers the delight of Gower Champion’s original choreography as touched up by choreographer Warren Carlyle, with a breathtaking dancing waiter number as a highlight. The costumes by Santo Loquasto, who also designed the attractive sets, are strikingly appealing.
The performances by supporting characters are colorful. I especially enjoyed Kate Baldwin as hat shop owner Irene Molloy, and as always it is a thrill to hear Baldwin sing, as she does here with “Ribbons Down My Back,” and her acting is also sharp. Credit Beanie Feldstein with a broadly comic performance as Minnie Fay, who sets her eyes on Barnaby and gets laughs from intensive mugging.
Jerry Herman wrote some memorable numbers, such as “It Takes a Woman,” “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment.” But let’s face it: The powerhouse songs remain “Hello, Dolly!” and “Before the Parade Passes By,” and when Midler gets hold of them and struts along the runway, the effect is stupendous. At the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-123-6200. Reviewed April 27, 2017.