Broadway review

Bette Midler Is a Better ‘Dolly’ Than Bernadette Peters: Review of ‘Hello, Dolly!’

The Daily Beast

February 22, 2018

It’s a gay Sophie’s Choice, and it’s happening on Broadway right now.

Prepare for friendships to be torn asunder, loud street arguments in Hell’s Kitchen (“At least Bernadette Peters knows how to walk down a staircase”), and vodka sodas being flung in anger.

Are you ‘Bette’ or ‘Bernadette’? (Or, kind, warm soul, do you love them both equally? They are both different performers, and shouldn’t be compared etc.)

Sadly, if you saw Midler and are also seeing Peters, comparisons are inevitable. On Thursday night, Peters officially takes over the mantle–or giant, deep pink, feathery fascinator—of Dolly Gallagher Levi from Midler, in Jerry Zaks’ handsomely mounted Broadway production of Hello, Dolly!

The Midler production of Jerry Herman’s musical (with book by Michael Stewart) which opened last April was, as I wrote at the time, a barnstorming, all-cylinders-rocketing joy, for which Midler won a Tony. It would be tough for any actor to follow her.

Peters obviously has the stage stature, but she is a very different Dolly. Midler exuded a flirty, knowing, audience-winking warmth in her Dolly. Peters, the night this reviewer attended at least, seemed more distant and (even if this means my gay card being immediately revoked) more nervous and tentative in the role.

Some in the audience would disagree with this—loudly. They whooped and applauded Peters as they had with Midler. Your preference, if you see both actors in the role, will come down to personal taste. Peters’ first appearance in Act One still brings the show to a hollering halt in its infancy. For Broadway devotees, Peters equals, even outstrips Midler in the icon stakes.

But in this role, Peters’ Dolly feels more skittish and scattered, and less focused than Midler’s eccentric mistress of all that she surveys and seeks to benevolently manipulate. We do not, for a moment, believe that Peters’ Dolly has a crush on, and desires to have a relationship with, Victor Garber’s Horace Vandergelder, the gruff Yonkers store-owner.

Both performers have no chemistry whatsoever, and do not even attempt to magic some up. Peters’ Dolly seems a little too outside the universe of the musical around her, and Garber’s performance compares poorly to David Hyde Pierce’s engaging incarnation—he was both a match and foil for Midler—in the earlier production.

Hyde Pierce captured Vandergelder as a grouchy eccentric, whose perfect mugging when singing “Penny In My Pocket” burrowed into the song’s ridiculous schematics. Garber singing the same looks puzzled, and makes us feel puzzled watching him.

Garber’s Vandergelder is more loopy eccentric—he reminded me of Charlie Bucket’s Grandpa from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory—than scowling, world-rejecting widower awaiting reawakening. His first song, “It Takes a Woman,” sung with the men of the company about women’s roles in domestic patriarchy, suddenly sounds creepily sexist rather than just charmingly hokey as it did before.

In evoking Dolly’s own widowhood, and her occasional soliloquies to her dear departed Ephraim, Peters locates some scratchily profound emotional notes that Midler did not, and this seemed to me to reflect her Dolly as less assured and less commanding. Others may think it is simply a more restrained performance, and good on her, but is Dolly Levi best played as restrained?

There is no sense why Peters’ Dolly and Garber’s Horace would get together, and no sense of them operating together when sharing a stage. Everything is said and played by both actors directly to us rather than between them. At the end, their coupling is purely ceremonial.

‘Dolly’ fans will not be disappointed by the key scene of our diva descending the Harmonia Gardens restaurant stairs, and the show’s title number striking up. The visuals of Dolly in her deep pink dress and crowning fascinator and the queenly acceptance of the waiters’ “Hello, Dolly, it’s so nice to have you back where you belong,” are as richly sung and visually satisfying as ever. (This is even more impressive when you consider that the ‘waiters’ have, for the previous few minutes, been performing the demented “Waiters’ Gallop,” choreographed by Warren Carlyle, with wobbling mountains of plates.)

Just as memorable as Peters’ Dolly, center stage and sparkling right in front of us, are the men’s wonderful voices, singing their devotion to Dolly in perfect unison.

Midler offset this goosebump-raising, bracing men’s chorus with her own perfectly judged campy theatrics and soft, lilting voice; Peters’ Dolly seems a little overwhelmed by the attention and unsure of who’s who. In its Midler iteration, the show was a smooth, big-voiced, big-colored joy; now it feels workmanlike. It is not terrible, but you can see the joins and hear a little creaking.

If this sounds harsh, there are other joys left intact. Peters, like Midler, makes the best kind of meal out of eating a meal. The orchestra, led by conductor Justin Hornback, is so lushly controlled you dream that one day you could march down a New York street with them playing “Before The Parade Passes By” beside you.

The chorus is glorious, from their first collective sortie singing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” dressed in Santo Loquasto’s suits and dresses in maxed-up sherbet colors, through to the men’s dazzling serenade of Dolly herself.

Remaining from the original are the formidable presences of Kate Baldwin as hat-shop owner Irene Molloy, who is not only very funny but whose honeyed meticulousness when singing “Ribbons Down My Back” underscores so perfectly the longing of that song.

Like her, a stay-on from the Midler production, Gavin Creel (now out of the show, recovering from back surgery; Santino Fontana will replace him) provides strong and charming support as store clerk Cornelius Hackl. Charlie Stemp as his sidekick Barnaby is appositely goofy, and as delightfully light on his feet as he needs to be as the pair search New York’s streets for a woman to kiss.

Molly Griggs as Minnie Fay, Irene’s assistant, is a zingily hilarious scene-stealer, and—some things never change—the worst parts are for young lovers Ambrose Kemper (Will Burton) and Ermengarde (Melanie Moore), whose desired union is the impetus for the musical’s plot and who are soon forgotten, reappearing only occasionally for her to wail in misery.

Peters fans will not be disappointed (their devotion would mean that would take a lot anyway). Hello, Dolly! is still a pleasure to watch. You will hum the songs for days. If you didn’t see Midler, Peters won’t suffer by comparison. If you did see Midler, it will come down to taste. Peters doesn’t perform the role badly, but, for this critic at least, the sense of fun and mischief that should orbit Dolly is missing from her. It was the heady perfume of the 2017 Midler production.

Suddenly, Hello, Dolly! feels like a company of individual performers working hard, rather than a company of performers in smooth, collective command of the material. Before the parade passes by, Hello, Dolly! would benefit from a reset.