There is an unutterable joy that comes from a great Broadway musical done damn well. It’s with great satisfaction that I can report the national tour of Jerry Herman’s classic 1964 musical Hello, Dolly! is so ebullient and exceptional that the show’s passerelle runway can barely contain it all.
1964 is often cited as the apex of the Broadway musical. In the span of nine months, Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, and Fiddler on the Roof all opened on Broadway. I’m something of a scholar in this field (if only self-proclaimed) and I can’t think of a single other calendar year that produced such uniquely landmark musicals that have gone on to be regarded as essential classics in their field.
While many legendary actresses have donned Dolly Gallagher Levi’s red gown – Ethel Merman, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Ginger Rogers, and Bette Midler more recently – there is only one name synonymous with the role and the red dress. Carol Channing, who passed away earlier this year at age 97, owned the role of Dolly, playing it more than 4,500 times over a thirty year span.
But a new dame – and what a grand old Broadway broad she is – has come to strut down the steps of the Harmonia Gardens restaurant and she is none other than the legendary Betty Buckley. While her Act One entrance is greeted with warm waves of welcoming applause from the Andrew Jackson Hall at TPAC, you ain’t seen nothing until she appears at the top of the famous staircase in Act Two and that raggy, jazzy brass fanfare of the show’s title song erupts from the pit. Brace yourselves is all I’ll say.
Speaking of staircases and such, this isn’t your average bus and truck tour. Sporting a cast of 34, 18 musicians in the pit, and Santo Loquasto’s eye-popping sets and costumes, Dolly bucks the trend of smaller, slicker, and cheaper and goes full-on luxury. The costuming and sets pay homage to the 1964 originals by Freddy Wittop and Oliver Smith. The splendid riot of turquoise, tangerine and chartreuse fabrics for Act One’s “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” reveals the depth of the show’s history and how, while you can modernize some things, you should know where your bread is buttered and give the crowds more with a heaping side of more.
Hello, Dolly! rolls into Nashville as a musical meat-and-three of talent, design, score, and choreography. The show finds its roots in the glories of Vaudeville, even as it was written in the unknowable twilight of American exceptionalism and was playing its first out-of-town tryout at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre when JFK was assassinated in November 1963. While so many musicals today aim for rib-tickling insider humor or, worse, shock and awe ribaldry, Dolly is as earnest as apple pie.
Co-starring alongside Buckley is the intensely talented Lewis J. Stadlen inhabiting the role of Horace Vandergelder, Yonkers’ own half-a-millionaire. I’ve seen his work before on the first national tour of The Producers where he had the unenviable task of playing Max Bialystock, the role created on Broadway by Nathan Lane. He was great then and remains wonderful today, serving as a worthy foil to Dolly’s trickery.
Stadlen also faces the challenge of delivering “It Takes a Woman,” the hilarious (if contemporarily problematic) paean to femininity and its virtues. You know, like milking cows, shoveling ice, dumping ashes, and setting mouse traps with her delicate Dresden porcelain-like fingers. He plays it straight, surrounded by the entire male ensemble, and the audience eats it up.
Nic Rouleau, who recently chucked his Book of Mormon gear after 2,500 performances, provides a charming, eager Cornelius Hackl. His partner in crime, Sean Burns, is a nimble wonder as Barnaby Tucker. Kristen Hahn’s Minnie Fay is a laugh riot of mannerisms, vocal affect, and ingenue innocence.
Without Warren Carlyle’s expert choreography, this show would find itself a two-legged stool. He keeps the large ensemble on tippy-toes through one production number after another. The sprightly “Waiters’ Gallop” and sumptuous “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” are particular highlights.
But without Buckley, this show wouldn’t have any legs to stand on at all. Dolly Gallagher Levi isn’t often mentioned as being on par with musical theatre’s most difficult female roles (read: Gypsy’s Mama Rose), but it takes a triple-threat comedienne, singer, and dramatic actress to make Dolly tick. When Buckley stands in the spotlight and delivers the show’s heartbreaking prologue to “Before the Parade Passes By,” you buy every detail of that oak leaf falling from the parchment leaves of her Bible.
At age 71, Buckley is playing a role that was originated by a 41-year-old Channing in 1964. But this revival has doubled down on the importance of talent over age from its inception. Bette Midler was 71 when the 2016 production opened and was eventually replaced by the then nearly 70-year-old Bernadette Peters.
From Row L of the orchestra level, it looked like Betty Buckley is having a grand time showing off and reminding you exactly how good an actress she is. After all, this is the woman who created the role of Grizzabella in the Original Broadway Production of Cats and who survived all 21 performances of the legendary 1988 flop, Carrie. She’s hammier than an Easter dinner in Kentucky one moment and then ever so delicately rips your heart out the next, all while having more business cards than Vistaprint tucked into her carpet bag.
If you love the unique artform that is the American Musical in all of its weird and wonderful glory, Hello, Dolly! is exactly the cure for whatever it is that ails you. This production is a big, beautiful love letter to Broadway and it’ll leave you humming any one of its signature tunes to yourself the entire ride home. It harkens back to the best of what this artform can be and is currently being shown off in a first-rate production staffed by A-list talents. You couldn’t hope for much more than that, so get yourself to TPAC before this parade passes you by.
Hello, Dolly! continues at TPAC through Sunday, May 5th. Tickets are available through TPAC’s website. Click HERE for other TPAC coverage.