WHAT “Hello, Dolly!”
WHERE Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St.
INFO $59-$229; 212-239-6200, hellodollyonbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Happy Midler, happy show.
If there were such a thing as a happiness meter at the Shubert Theatre these days, where, oh, where would that be placed? The obvious position is in the audience, where fans of “Hello, Dolly!” and fans of Bette Midler — which may well add up to just about everyone — have come together in a palpable bonding festival of hot-ticket excitement, contentment and raucous joy.
And yet, it is the happiness exuded by Midler that makes this first-rate revival of Jerry Herman’s 1964 chestnut so delightful and, yes, so deeply touching. The pop-culture icon, in her first starring Broadway musical role, gets to use all her stage savvy and intelligent fabulousness in director Jerry Zaks’ deliriously old-fashioned new production of a musical that was already old-fashioned when dancing waiters first sang the title song to Carol Channing more than a half-century ago.
Along with David Hyde Pierce, a wondrous model of underplayed vaudeville, as the miser Dolly aims to marry, Midler plays the turn-of-the-last-century matchmaker with surprising restraint in the first act. She takes dainty little steps in her pigeon-bustle dress and often folds her hands demurely at her waist.
But by the time she walks down the famous staircase in the second act in her red gown with a half-shell of red feathers on her head, she lets loose — but never without discipline — with a Dolly that has a crescent moon twinkle of Bette in her eye and nonstop show-biz virtuosity.
She sings “Look at the old girl now, fellas,” with a wha-wha-wha chorus, twirls a baton, pretends to pop a dozen dumplings in her mouth and skips along the runway that circles the orchestra pit to bring everything even closer to the crowd.
In fact, almost everything in the meticulously cast and designed production is played downstage, as if these eager-to-please characters just might hop in our laps. A few too many characters shriek too loudly, and the volume could be turned down a few notches, but this is comedy admirably without mugging.
Santo Loquasto’s sets with their massive painted murals and his pastel candy-colored costumes look lavish and built to last. Warren Carlyle’s ballroom-balletic choreography, with a bow to Gower Champion’s original, is gracious and, when the waiters toss plates in their gallop, scarily amazing.
Standouts in the large company include Kate Baldwin, with her operetta strength and her refusal to play coy, as the milliner and the gallantly irrepressible Gavin Creel as the store clerk who wins her.
Finally, there is Herman’s larger-than-life sentimental show, optimistic, beltable, with simply structured songs and repeated verses that dare us — and by us, I mean even me — not to hum them in the morning.