225 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Wednesday - Sunday through January 14, $59-$229
The new production of Hello, Dolly!, which is breaking house records at the Shubert Theatre, is everything that is wrong with Broadway. The fourth revival of the hit musical that debuted on the Great White Way in 1964 is, more than ever, a star vehicle with more than its share of glitz and glamour masking an old-fashioned story that is mediocre at best and downright embarrassing at worst. Grammy, Tony, and Emmy winner Bette Midler, who has also been nominated for two Oscars, has taken over a role she was seemingly born to play, a part most identified with Carol Channing but also portrayed by such other prominent leading ladies as Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, and Ethel Merman onstage and by Barbra Streisand in Gene Kelly’s 1969 film. Now seventy-one (Channing was forty-three when she originated the role), Midler has charm and energy to spare, if not quite the pipes and the moves; her every utterance and shuffle are met with wild cheers of delight from the worshipful audience. And Midler plays off the crowd to the hilt, posturing and preening for maximum effect even as we hope she manages to avoid the long, narrow opening to the unseen pit orchestra below. The show, directed by four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks (Guys and Dolls, Lend Me a Tenor) and choreographed by Warren Carlyle (After Midnight) — Gower Champion was responsible for both in 1964 — is chock-full of razzle-dazzle, including fabulously colorful costumes by Santo Loquasto, who also designed the sets, which range from the glamorous Harmonia Gardens Restaurant to the homey Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed shop in Yonkers.
But this version is really more of a cabaret-circus variety show than a fully fledged Broadway musical; Michael Stewart’s book, based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, boasts a silly narrative that is not exactly a boost to the fight for women’s equality, and Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics are rather dilapidated all these years later. Midler stars as Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widowed matchmaker trying to convince fussy, sort-of-wealthy widower Horace Vandergelder (David Hyde-Pierce) to let his whiny niece, Ermengarde (Melanie Moore), marry starving artist Ambrose Kemper (Will Burton) while also laying a trap to get Horace for herself while introducing him to young and beautiful milliner Irene Molloy (Kate Baldwin) and the very odd Ernestina Money (Jennifer Simard). Heading off to New York City for a parade, Horace leaves his two clerks, Cornelius Hackl (Gavin Creel) and Barnaby Tucker (Taylor Trensch), in charge of the store, but they decide it’s time for them to get away as well, sneaking off to New York, where Cornelius falls for Irene and Barnaby takes a liking to Minnie Fay (Beanie Feldstein), Irene’s assistant.
In the big city, much zaniness ensues, from run-of-the-mill slapstick comedy (Cornelius and Barnaby hiding from Horace in Irene’s shop) to a long, cringeworthy scene in Harmonia Gardens that plays off the rich vs. poor theme with a series of unfunny sight gags. And “The Waiters’ Gallop,” in which the talented ensemble gets caught up in ever-more-precarious situations, boasts creative props and terrific costumes, but it’s a real showstopper in both senses of the word; not only does the crowd go gaga over it, clapping again and again and again, but it brings the narrative to a screeching halt. It’s merely an excuse for everyone to show off, and show off they do, even though it has little to do with the story. It certainly doesn’t help that there’s zero chemistry between any of the potential love matches, particularly, and most egregiously, Dolly and Horace; at times it’s like Midler (I’ll Eat You Last) and Hyde-Pierce (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), who does his fair share of flaunting, are in two different shows. Through it all, though, there’s Bette, who never really inhabits the role but plays herself playing the character while basking in the unending attention, the love bursting forth from the audience at her every knowing smirk; the Shubert practically explodes when she emerges in her glittering red dress for the title song, but it’s Bette who’s being celebrated, not Dolly. For many, that appears to be more than enough. And that’s really too bad, because by then, the parade had already passed by. (Donna Murphy will play Dolly on Tuesday nights beginning June 13 and for select performances through the run of the show; it should be intriguing to see how it holds up when the Divine Miss M is not front and center.)