Review: Say Hello To the ‘Other’ Dolly!
By Chris Caggiano, Contributing Writer, July 11, 2017
Here’s some good news if you can’t get a ticket to see Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! — or if you couldn’t afford that ticket even if you could find it. (Officially sanctioned premium tickets for September are going for $675.00. I mean, yikes.)
And that good news is Donna Murphy. As sensational as Bette Midler is in the role — and she is genuinely sensational — I got the sense that the production around her was strong enough to work with someone else in the lead role. Fortunately, the producers have seen fit to provide us with a controlled Broadway experiment of sorts, holding all of the other theatrical variables constant.
The glorious Donna Murphy, a two-time Tony winner, is more than filling Bette Midler’s shoes on Tuesday nights throughout the run, and during Bette’s July vacation. Donna Murphy is one of the strongest, most versatile performers currently working in musical theater. And she’s predictably a physical dynamo as Dolly Levi, with her hips all a-swivel, and her eyes all a-roll. As is typically true of Murphy, she fully commits to every gesture, every facial expression in her delightfully hammy take on the role.
Sure, Bette is her own brand of fabulous. But whereas Bette is a star — and one of the highest order — Murphy is a trained, experienced stage professional, adept at the full range of musical theater roles from Fosca in Passion to Anna Leonowens in The King and I, from Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town to Phyllis Stone in Follies. To paraphrase Norma Desmond, Donna Murphy can play any role.
Sure, it’s a completely different performance. Bette is far warmer as Dolly, and considerably more wistful. As wondrous as Donna Murphy is, she does have a tendency of coming of as a bit cold and calculated. But Donna is more physically animated than Bette. She makes braver, more deliberate comic choices, some of which admittedly fail to land. And, in terms of pure singing, Donna blows Bette out of the water.
Director Jerry Zaks’s irresistible cartoon of a production is every bit as lively and luscious when it’s framing Donna Murphy as when it’s showcasing Bette Midler. The show just seems to run like clockwork. The pace never flags. Warren Carlyle’s loving reimagining of Gower Champion’s original choreography is all just as crisp, and Jerry’s Herman’s score is just as irresistible.
Of course, it helps that the show itself is one of those musicals that’s so well crafted, it makes you forget there’s really not much of substance going on. It’s best not to stop and try to make sense of it all, for instance when Dolly tells Ambrose and Ermengarde why they need to enter the dance contest at Harmonia Gardens: “This is our only chance to show Horace Vandergelder that we mean business.” Yeah, best not to parse out the logic of that claim, because there isn’t any.
Also, the supporting cast here is still the best you could possibly hope for. In fact, they’ve honed their comic business to an even sharper hew. (Perhaps a bit too sharp at times?)
Beanie Feldstein continues to steal the show with her adorable take on Minnie Fay. Taylor Trensch as Barnaby more than matches Feldstein for adorableness. Kate Baldwin is her glorious, resonant, luminous self as Irene Malloy. Gavin Creel as Cornelius has thankfully not allowed his recent Tony win to go to his head. His performance is actually even better, less cocky, more gawkish, as the role requires.
So, I promise you, if you want to see this Hello Dolly!, you’ll still be seeing a thrilling, first-rate production, even if you’re not seeing it with Bette Midler. The audience I saw Donna Murphy with seemed every bit as appreciative, every bit as elated as the people I saw Bette Midler with. Perhaps even a bit more so, because the Murphy audience wasn’t there to ogle a star. There came to witness a master performer in one of the best female roles in all of musical theater.
For ZEALnyc’s review of the opening night of “Hello, Dolly!” click here.
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Cover: Official theater signage; photo: ZEALnyc.