Monday, March 12, 2018

Hello, Dolly! Redux

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

I had a great time watching Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce in Hello, Dolly! last fall, but Bernadette Peters and Victor Garber, who have replaced them in Jerry Zaks’s gleaming Broadway revival, bring something new to the roles of Dolly Gallagher Levi and Horace Vandergelder: heart. Up to now my favorite Dolly has been Barbra Streisand in the otherwise bloated and worn 1969 movie version. She gave a sensational showmanlike performance – like Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy or Robert Preston in The Music Man. But she was so absurdly young to be playing the widowed Dolly, who fastens on Yonkers shopkeeper Vandergelder as a way to refurbish a life grown dull, that the semblance of naturalism that’s meant to undergird musical comedy, even in something as stylized as Guys and Dolls, vanished utterly and you watched Streisand as if she were starring in her own revue. (And that certainly wasn’t the case with Cagney or Preston.) Peters, who, like Midler, is the right age to play Dolly, gives her a core of vulnerability from the get-go – from the moment she apostrophizes to her beloved dead husband, Ephraim, that she’s tired of living life as she has since he passed on. Both Streisand and Midler played Dolly’s bid for remarriage to Horace as situation comedy and farce; Peters motivates it psychologically.

Peters has appeared in a lot of Broadway musicals, and some of them haven’t done much for her – which is another way of saying that she wasn’t cast right in them. I didn’t enjoy watching her as the Witch in Into the Woods or as Mama Rose in Gypsy; she was shrill and pushy (and in the latter case, I’m making a distinction between Peters’s acting and the character of Mama Rose, who is, of course, famously pushy). What made her so special in Herbert Ross’s peerless 1981 movie musical Pennies from Heaven, where she played opposite Steve Martin, and again in the original 1984 Broadway production of Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, was her delicacy, which existed in a tender tension with her show-biz finesse. Though she wasn’t in good voice – at least, the night I saw her – in the 2011 revival of Sondheim’s Follies, she rediscovered that delicacy in the role of Sally Plummer; she was deeply touching. That’s how I felt about her when she sang the first-act finale of Hello, Dolly!, “Before the Parade Passes By,” which is, aside from the title song, the high point of Jerry Herman’s score. So when she struts down the long staircase in that red velvet gown for the “Hello, Dolly!” number, what we’re seeing is the promise of “Parade” fulfilled: she does “raise the roof and carry on,” in an effort to “get some life back into my life” rather than simply fade away as respectable widows are supposed to do in late-nineteenth-century New York. And this Dolly’s communication with Ephraim Levi isn’t some precious slab of theatricality (which seems to be how Thornton Wilder wrote it in the source material, The Matchmaker, which Ruth Gordon played on stage and Shirley Booth in the 1958 movie version). It’s a holding onto the past, the memory of a wonderful marriage of flesh and spirit that she has to move on from. In a sense, that moving on is related to what Juliet Stevenson’s character, Nina, has to summon up the courage to do in Anthony Minghella’s heartrending (and sadly neglected) 1990 comedy Truly, Madly, Deeply. But in that film Nina’s dead lover (Alan Rickman) has to return to her from beyond the grave to give her the push. In Hello, Dolly! the title character does the pushing and Ephraim gives her a supernatural sign that he gives his permission. This is the first production of the musical that has ever made me cry at the end.

Garber is, like David Hyde Pierce, a high-comic actor in a low-comic role, but he doesn’t embrace its music-hall quality the way his predecessor did. Pierce doesn’t have it in him to be vulgar, and his energy is always mediated: he holds back as much as he gives out. He’s more soft-shoe than high-stepping. But he’s not always Niles on Frasier either; I had no trouble buying him as the cop with the Boston accent who solves the murders in the backstage musical Curtains while he saves the troubled out-of-town show. Garber’s performance is built around the fact that he’s a high-comedy fellow playing Horace Vandergelder. He takes a velvet-glove approach, and from the outset you’re sure there’s something he’s not telling us. It turns out to be that all that parsimoniousness and gold-digging isn’t the real Horace – that he’s generous at heart. Even Pierce couldn’t make Horace’s turnaround in the last scene, where he suddenly reveals that he’s fallen for Dolly and wants her to be his wife, make sense. Of course, it doesn’t have to; if the Dolly is good enough, you’re willing to accept the idea that Horace is seeing for the first time what the audience has seen all along. (And most of the actors I’ve seen play Horace have been so bad that you have no choice but to believe that the guy is getting much better than he deserves.) But when Garber proposes to Peters, what you think is that he’s finally stopped trying to convince himself that he’s a misanthropic old skinflint, that he’s owning up to qualities that Dolly has always known were there.

Kate Baldwin is still charming audiences as no doubt the best Irene Molloy in the show’s just-over-half-a-century history. Gavin Creel, as her romantic partner, Horace’s head clerk Cornelius Hackl, had to leave the show to have back surgery; Santino Fontana replaces him this week, but in the meantime I saw Creel’s understudy, Christian Dante White, who has a strong voice but grinned so much that he always seemed to be posing for a tintype. Perhaps Fontana can calm down Charlie Stemp, who has taken over from Taylor Trensch in the part of the novice clerk, Barnaby Tucker; I found it pretty tough to watch White and Stemp together, though I think the new Minnie Fay, Molly Griggs, is an improvement over Bernie Feldstein (now of Lady Bird fame). Most of the rest of the supporting cast is the same as it was when the show opened. I hadn’t anticipated seeing it again; I’m grateful to the friend who changed my mind.

– 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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