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‘Hello, Dolly!’: Betty Buckley and a superb cast rediscover the legendary musical’s bittersweet joy (review)

October 6, 2018

‘Hello, Dolly!’: Betty Buckley and a superb cast rediscover the legendary musical’s bittersweet joy (review)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – One of the marks of a great production is when the supporting characters, those stalwarts with a total number of lines you can count on one or two hands, are a sheer delight.

That’s the kind of tip-of-the-feathered-tiara-to-toe craftsmanship at work in the first national tour of the celebrated revival of “Hello, Dolly!” that kicked off Friday at the Connor Palace in Playhouse Square.

You see it in Rudolph (Wally Dunn) the walrus-mustachioed maitre d’ at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant as he conducts the frantic “Waiter’s Gallop,” with nervous servers racing on and off the stage, nearly but never colliding, brandishing shish kebab skewers like fencing swords and rhythmically snapping the lids of serving trays heaped with food.

He stands, the eye of a storm of aproned bodies, at the base of the iconic stairs from which we know one Dolly Gallagher Levi will soon descend, returning from a 10-year hiatus following the death of her husband, Ephraim Levi.

The boys are in a tizzy of anticipation to welcome her home to the cafe, an old, favorite haunt, their greeting the most famous number in a Jerry Herman score filled with them. “Hello, Dolly, well hello Dolly, it’s so nice to have you back where you belong . . .”

Why should those few, early lyrics bring tears to our eyes? (Don’t lie – I saw tissues deployed and eyes dabbed at as I grabbed my own Kleenex.)

Let me count the ways.

The titular number, and every other in this gorgeously realized touring production, is executed with the sort of love, energy and attention to detail you’d expect in a world premiere. Too often, revivals are weighed down by the history of past success, every line and lyric a cliché. And Broadway’s “Hello, Dolly!” – with its Who’s Who of leading ladies, beginning with Carol Channing in 1964 and ending with Bette Midler in 2017 – carries more baggage than many.

Yet director Jerry Zaks, who helmed the Midler production, and his cast and crew bring the kiss of youthful first love to “Dolly’s” rouged cheek. There is nothing tired or rote in a single routine. Every visual gag lands; each exactingly choreographed movement is crisp and specific.

When a chorus line launched into “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” arms linked, dressed in mouthwatering, sherbet-colored costumes by Santo Loquatso – lime and lemon and peach and orange – the audience burst into spontaneous applause.

And then there is Betty Buckley, a legend joining the cavalcade of legends who have donned the signature red dress before her. She brings a vulnerable, tremulous quality to the role of Dolly, a woman tentatively re-entering the spotlight of her life after standing, widowed, in the wings.

Those like me, lucky enough to have seen her history-making performance as Grizabella in “Cats,” know this heartbreaking vulnerability to also be signature Buckley.

When we meet Buckley’s Dolly at the top of the show, she is all brash confidence, passing out her business cards advertising everything from “instruction on the guitar and mandolin” to “varicose veins reduced!”

“Some people paint, some people sew – I meddle,” she tells us, eyes sparkling with mischief.  

She is, in short, a woman who arranges things – specifically, marriages. Her current client is Horace Vandergelder (a marvelously cantankerous Lewis J. Stadlen), a Yonkers hay and feed merchant and “a half a millionaire,” which, in 1885 New York, qualifies him as “rich, friendless and mean.” In other words, the perfect candidate for a Dolly Levi matrimonial makeover.

He’s on the hunt for a second wife, not for romance but for the more practical purpose of someone steady to clean house.

“As my late husband Mr. Levi always said, marriage is a bribe to make a housekeeper think she’s a householder. . .” Dolly quips.

She’d planned to set him up with the widowed Irene Malloy (Analisa Leaming, channeling a young Meg Ryan at her most plucky and adorable) owner of a hat shop she runs with her goof of an assistant Minnie Faye (the charmingly breathless Kristen Hahn).

But lately, as the matchmaker confides in a monolog to her beloved Ephraim, she’s gotten tired of hustling. If he gives her a sign, she tells him, she can stop living hand-to-mouth and marry Horace Vandergelder “for his money.”

Dolly isn’t a gold digger – far from it. She wants to help Horace do what Ephraim taught her – to spread his money around Yonkers like manure, so it can help young things to grow.

Mr. Vandergelder, proud penny-pincher that he is, will be a hard sell on both counts. Dolly’s ingenious machinations to steer him away from Mrs. Malloy – with whom he plans to rendezvous that very day in New York City – and send him reeling in her direction is the piquant, dry dung fuel that powers the exuberant slapstick of the musical.

Joining in the highjinks are Mr. Vandergelder’s hardworking, underpaid head clerk Cornelius Hackl (Nic Rouleau) and Cornelius’s guy Friday Barnaby Tucker (human spring Jess LeProtto).

God bless Thornton Wilder, the playwright upon whose work “Hello, Dolly!” is based, for giving us working class heroes to root for. The two innocents are a diverting duo, speaking and, seemingly anxiously perspiring in unison, as they hatch a plot to blow up a cache of canned tomatoes, forcing the closure of the store so they have an excuse to sneak into the big city and live it up for a night.

“We’re not coming back to Yonkers until we’ve each kissed a girl,” Cornelius proclaims. Naturally, they’ll run headlong into their boss – and Dolly – at Mrs. Malloy’s hat shop, where an antic game of hide-and-seek ensures, with Barnaby and Cornelius diving under tables and hiding in closets with precision timing.

Other highlights are those aforementioned singing, high-kicking waiters at the Harmonia Gardens and a dance contest at the same spot that devolves into a police raid. Amidst the brandished billy clubs and shrieking contestants, Dolly sits at a little side table, luxuriating in a meal of turkey and dumplings with a sort of lip-smacking, near-orgasmic relish that prompted my plus-one to whisper, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

In Buckley’s performance we see the seamless intersection of the tragic and the comic that makes “Hello, Dolly!” such a bittersweet experience.

In one scene, she drinks gravy from a tureen as though it were champagne from a slipper. In another, singing “Before The Parade Passes By,” one of the most sorrowful yet hopeful compositions in the Great American songbook, she stands alone in a pool of light at the very edge of the stage – one more step and she’d be in the laps of the musicians in the orchestra pit. Her eyes shimmering with tears, she again speaks to Ephraim, her long dead love. One more ride of the merry-go-round of life is all she asks.

I’ve got a goal again, I’ve got a drive again

I wanna feel my heart coming alive again

Before the parade passes by

There is a built-in poignancy in seeing this sacred standard of musical theater performed by a woman of 71. But Buckley, who last headlined a Broadway show in 1998 and one in London’s West End in 2013, has always been able to tap a reservoir of feeling in an instant, connecting her heart to ours.

Brava, Diva. So nice to have you back where you belong.

REVIEW

Hello, Dolly!

What: The KeyBank Broadway Series presents the four-time Tony-winning revival of the musical. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Michael Stewart. Based on the play “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Jerry Zaks.

When: Through Sunday, Oct. 21.

Where: Connor Palace, Playhouse Square, Cleveland.

Tickets: $30-$115. Go to playhousesquare.org or call 216-241-6000.

Approximate running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission.

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