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BWW Review: Bernadette Peters' Star Quality Shimmers in Jerry Zaks' Wondrous HELLO, DOLLY! Revival


Intended for Ethel Merman, created by Carol Channing, reinvented by Pearl Bailey and based on a character made famous by Ruth Gordon, the title character of Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly! is perhaps the most flexible starring role to ever grace the Broadway musical stage.

Hello, Dolly!
Bernadette Peters (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Consider that, aside from those mentioned, the names above the title during the original 1964-70 run of composer/lyricist Jerry Herman and bookwriter Michael Stewart's enduring classic included women of contrasting styles and talents such as Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Martha Raye and Ginger Rogers. Meanwhile, Mary Martin flew out to Vietnam to perform the show for American troops.

So when the brash, comedic whirlwind known as Bette Midler, along with the stylish and clever Donna Murphy, are succeeded in the dazzling Broadway revival at the Shubert by the coy and kittenish Bernadette Peters, it's really not much of a stretch, because the one quality required by every woman who plays the role is star quality.

A superbly written work of bubbly fun and warm sentiment, enhanced by a score full of memorable melodies and smart lyrics shaped into songs that demand to be staged, the musical's central character is a woman that was introduced by playwright Thornton Wilder in his 1955 hit, THE MATCHMAKER, a revised version of his short-lived THE MERCHANT OF YONKERS.

Dolly Gallagher Levi is an enterprising 1880s New York widow supporting herself through various professions, particularly as a matchmaker, until she decides it's time to "rejoin the human race" and marry again. She has her eye on one of her clients, Horace Vandergelder, the well-known half-a-millionaire who owns a hay and feed store in Yonkers. Dolly sabotages Horace's intention to propose to the young widowed milliner, Irene Molloy and sneakily arranges for the two of them to enjoy a cozy dinner at the Harmonia Gardens, right after the handsome waiters welcome her back with a few choruses of the catchy hit tune.

As a businessperson, Dolly's major asset is an ability to grab life's spotlight and charm potential customers with a fast-talking confidence that says she has everything under control. And as she charms the residents of Yonkers and lower Manhattan, a proper Dolly pulls the same trick with the theatre audience, guaranteeing and evening of fabulous entertainment.

Peters expertly delivers the exact kind of Dolly a seasoned theatre-goer would expect from her; a fast-thinking entrepreneur using her delicate Gibson Girl appearance and cordial manner to always keep those around her off guard. He knack for high comedy is spot on and her quiet moments alone as she asks her late husband for a sign that he approves of her choice to remarry are tender and heartwarming. Her vocals are pure and masterful. Just try to find a moment so thrilling on Broadway now as her determined and gutsy "Before The Parade Passes By" or as snazzy as her vaudevillian turn in "So Long, Dearie."

And as far as the title number goes, this is a grand and glorious Broadway star pouring over 50 years of stage savvy and fabulousness into an effervescent turn that leaves the audience in the sublime afterglow of showbiz ecstasy.

But as great as Peters is, she is by no means the only jewel in this crowning achievement. The production by director Jerry Zaks, a real master when it comes to bringing out the comedy in old school musical comedy, hasn't lost a step since opening last April, and remains as perfect a night of Golden Age Broadway as you're apt to enjoy.

He and choreographer Warren Carlyle work within the frame of director/choreographer Gower Champion's classic original production but the exciting, briskly paced staging is not a cut and paste job. Likewise, the work of set and costume designer Santo Loquasto contains reminders of the original, but that doesn't discredit his sumptuously fun and colorful visuals. Under Natasha Katz's lights, there's a wonderfully uplifting moment when the ensemble promenades across the stage singing the pepper-upper "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" dressed in an eye-popping assortment of sunny pastels.

Hello, Dolly!
Victor Garber and Company
(Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Victor Garber, better known these days as a classically handsome comic leading man with a smooth and romantic tenor, is terrific as a gruff and demanding Horace who finds himself befuddled by Dolly's antics, not realizing he's falling in love with her with every exasperated confrontation.

Exquisitely-voiced soprano Kate Baldwin is just as delightful as ever, continuing as the romantically canny Irene and enchanting hearts with Herman's lovely ballad, "Ribbons Down My Back." She's courted by the adorably awkward Gavin Creel, whose winning turn as Horace's flustered, but ambitious assistant, Cornelius, earned him a Tony last June.

Joining the cast is Molly Griggs, who is great nerdy fun as Irene's flirtatious assistant Minnie Fay, and British import Charlie Stemp, who flashes a big smile and slick dance moves as Cornelius' naïve co-worker Barnaby.

The splendid supporting company also includes Tony nominee Jennifer Simard, getting laughs as a disastrous match for Horace, crusty character man Michael McCormick, playing various ensemble roles, and a sensational gathering of male dancers executing "The Waiters' Galop," an intricately choreographed showcase demonstrating the swift and acrobatic service offered at Harmonia Gardens.

HELLO, DOLLY! is one of Broadway's great gems and Bernadette Peters' shimmering performance makes this wondrous production glitter even more brightly.

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From This Author Michael Dale