Monday, April 24, 2017

Iconic Shows of the 1960s: Hello, Dolly! and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! at Broadway's Shubert Theatre. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Hello, Dolly! opened in January 1964 and stayed open for just under seven years. It wasn’t the best musical on Broadway in those years – it was no Fiddler on the Roof – but it represented, and continues to represent, the end of the golden age of Broadway musicals. It was a big, brassy star vehicle, built around the rather specialized talents of Carol Channing but flexible enough to be refitted for the long line of older women who made comebacks in the role of the widowed matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi. (The source material for Michael Stewart’s book was the Thornton Wilder comedy The Matchmaker.) There was some controversy when Barbra Streisand, at only twenty-seven, inherited the role in the 1969 movie, but her stupendous performance was its lifeblood; the movie, directed in a stifling, museum-piece style by Gene Kelly, would have sunk under its own weight without her. And it contained one of the great moments in movie-musical history: in the middle of the title song – certainly the best-known item in the Jerry Herman score – Streisand, decked out in a golden Gay Nineties gown with feathers on her head, harmonized with Louis Armstrong, whose cover had been as big a hit as the show itself.

The new revival, starring Bette Midler as Dolly and David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder, the wealthy but parsimonious Yonkers shop owner who is supposedly her client but really the object of her own romantic machinations, arrives with more anticipation than any Broadway show in years. Advance hype aside (and God knows there’s been plenty), how could it not? Midler hasn’t appeared in a book musical since she played one of Tevye’s younger daughters in the original run of Fiddler, before she became famous; aside from the (non-musical) solo performance I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers in 2013, her only New York appearances have been in a couple of revues – one of which, Clams on the Half Shell, I was lucky enough to see back in 1975. Her Broadway comeback, at seventy-one, is not going to disappoint her legion of fans. She plays Dolly with one foot firmly planted in the Jewish vaudeville tradition, grinning that famous cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, and the highlight of her performance is indeed culinary: in the middle of act two she dispatches a stuffed chicken with dumplings at a table stage right with hilarious gusto while most of the rest of the ensemble, gathered in a courtroom upstage after the evening’s hijinks at Manhattan’s Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, waits for her to finish so the plot can take its final turn. And she could hardly have landed a funnier scene partner than Pierce, who revivifies a role that has generally brought out little in the men who’ve played it besides a side of undernourished, overbaked ham. Pierce’s first-act number, “It Takes a Woman,” performed with a male chorus, is one of the evening’s surprising highlights – the choreographer, Warren Carlyle, has staged it wittily – and “Penny in My Pocket,” written for the original Horace, David Burns, but cut out of town, has been restored to give Pierce a second-act number.

Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)
Pierce isn’t a singer, but as anyone can attest who saw him as the theatre-loving detective investigating a backstage murder in Curtains, he has a showman’s ease balanced by an appealing modesty. Midler, of course, is a singer par excellence, though the night I saw her, late in previews, she wasn’t in good voice, and “Before the Parade Passes By,” her raucous first-act finale, suffered. Dolly is a hell of a vocal workout: she performs in seven numbers, every one of them upbeat. (Herman added a pretty ballad for Streisand, “Love Is Only Love,” but there’s no place for it in the stage show.) I imagine I just heard her on an off night.

The show, directed by Jerry Zaks (who has another musical, A Bronx Tale, running concurrently), is satisfying, if somewhat overproduced; I prefer the version the Goodspeed Opera House stage four years ago, which, with less bulk and less shtick, made the hidden virtues of the musical itself gleam. But of course it wasn’t constructed around a superstar, who naturally – and rightly – gives it a different shape. In Zaks’ production, a cast of thirty cavorts on miles of set, most of it very attractive, displaying miles of eye-popping costumes; Santo Loquasto designed both. The challenge for Carlyle was to figure out how to showcase the hefty chorus in the big numbers, and though he’s done superb work in the past (on Finian’s Rainbow and especially After Midnight), here he’s often reduced to rather uninspired side-to-side manipulation of the dancers. Besides “It Takes a Woman,” he’s at his best with “Dancing” and in the polka contest at the Harmonia Gardens. The roles of the younger romantic couple, the hatmaker Irene Molly (also a widow) and the shop clerk Cornelius Hackl, go to Kate Baldwin and Gavin Creel, who are splendid together. Irene isn’t much of a part, but Baldwin brings so much warmth, wit and style to it that she fleshes it out, and she even makes you listen carefully to that insipid first-act ballad “Ribbons Down My Back,” which has always sounded like vocal filler. Together she and Midler and the wonderfully named Beanie Feldstein as Irene’s assistant Minnie Fay can’t do anything with the novelty trio “Motherhood,” sung to distract Horace from the presence of his two clerks (Taylor Trensch plays the other one, Barnaby Tucker) in Irene’s hat shop, but that number is probably unsalvageable. (The movie wisely eliminated it.) Mostly, however, the score is livelier and more melodic than most of us who were around in the sixties probably remember.

Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic in London. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

On the other hand, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, receiving a fiftieth-anniversary top-up at the Old Vic in London that has been transmitted worldwide in HD, really doesn’t hold up. Or maybe it’s just that you have to be of a certain age to find its absurdist, egghead take on Hamlet charming enough to sit through it for nearly two and a half hours. This production is way better than the one Trevor Nunn directed in the West End in 2011, which had quotation marks around every goddamn line. Matthew Warchus (the Old Vic’s current artistic director) has staged it imaginatively on a set by Anna Fleischle that looks something like the inside of a kaleidoscope, and though I found Joshua McGuire’s eagerness in the role of Guildenstern somewhat wearying, Daniel Radcliffe does a lot with Rosencrantz’s existential befuddlement and David Haig is entertainingly fatuous as the Player, declaiming tremulously. I feel almost like I’m betraying my own youth when I confess that this play, which I adored as an undergraduate, now seems to me to go on for an eternity, but I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it again.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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