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Betty Buckley on high heels and headlining ‘Hello, Dolly!’ – 2018 Fall Theater Preview

September 23, 2018

Betty Buckley on high heels and headlining ‘Hello, Dolly!’ – 2018 Fall Theater Preview

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Betty Buckley was in New Orleans shooting the AMC horror series “Preacher” — in which she plays the soul-eating sorceress Marie L’Angell also known as “Gran’ma” — when she got a call from her agent. She had been offered the title role in the national tour of “Hello, Dolly!”

“It wasn’t a thought in my head that I would ever play Dolly Levi — it didn’t occur to me,” says Buckley. “It was not on my wish list. I was really surprised.”

That didn’t stop her from saying, “Yes.” Buckley’s versatility is legendary.

She can do wholesome. She made her Broadway debut in 1969 as Martha Jefferson in “1776” and made stepmoms cool as Abby Bradford in 102 episodes of “Eight Is Enough” from 1977 to 1981.

And she can do unhinged. Buckley was homicidal silent star Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” prompting Variety’s Jeremy Gerard to call her 1995 portrayal “definitive,” dismissing previous star turns by divas Patti LuPone and Glenn Close as “the Sicilian Norma Desmond” and “kabuki Norma Desmond,” respectively.

But this felt less like versatility and more like whiplash.

“It’s so funny to go from playing this psychotic, evil, Cajun, voodoo sorceress to the most joyous, wonderful, loving, creative, spontaneous woman on the planet that is Dolly Levi in the same year,” says Buckley.

Buckley is on the phone in late August, calling from New York City where the “Hello, Dolly” national tour is being built. It opens in Playhouse Square’s Connor Palace on Sunday, Sept. 30.

Dolly’s warmth, she says, was the perfect antidote to Gran’ma’s witchiness. Don’t get her wrong — the native Texan loves being the baddie.

But Dolly Gallagher Levi is a role of a lifetime for any actress, says Buckley’s director, Jerry Zaks, also on a quick rehearsal break earlier that day. He’s the architect of the luminous revival starring Bette Midler, which is now being remounted for the road.

“The part requires not only a queen but an enormous talent,” says Zaks. “A queen as in someone who can really carry the stage, and who also has the vocal abilities and can move and can act.”

When Zaks and producer Scott Rubin started thinking of who could pull it off, only a handful of names came to mind.

“It’s a very small list,” says Zaks. Asking Buckley to take the role was “a no-brainer.”

“Betty,” he is happy to report, “is just grabbing [the part] with both hands and having a ball.”

It helps that Buckley is in love with her cast — “they’re so unbelievably talented, they make me wanna cry they’re so adorable,” she says. Some 61 people will hit the road to Cleveland, including performers, musicians and crew members and “15 dogs,” says Buckley, four of which — two Shih Tzus and two shepherd mixes — are hers.

She had seen her share of “Dollys” — from community theater productions to Pearl Bailey as the clever matchmaker yearning for a match of her own. They’d always entertained her, but none had moved her to tears, Buckley says.

Then she caught Zaks’ revival of the Jerry Herman musical.

“I saw it a year ago right before the Tonys and I was like everybody else in the audience — I just wept with joy,” says Buckley. “It’s a completely rapturous production.”

Zaks’ love of the piece is no doubt part of its winning formula. He left his premed studies behind at Dartmouth to slip into the back of the St. James Theatre to see Carol Channing, the ur-Dolly, in the original Broadway production in 1965. He loved it so much, he came back during the six-year run to see Bailey as Dolly, then Ginger Rogers.

What was it about the shenanigans of a widow in 1880s Yonkers that pulled the young Zaks back to that same theater, again and again?

“It’s an ecstatic feeling that the show generates when it’s done with brio and commitment — the way it was, you know?” says Zaks.

Like Zaks, Buckley never imagined that she’d one day be a part of the Dolly Joy Machine, yet here she is, six weeks into rehearsals of the most challenging role of her professional career. (She’ll celebrate 50 years in show business in January.)

“It’s hard — I haven’t done anything harder than this,” she says. Not even “Sunset Boulevard.” It wasn’t the challenge of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score that taxed her, but the nightly climb.

“I did ‘Sunset Boulevard’ for  two years — there’s a massive staircase in that, and I ran up and down the stairs like 12 times a night in 35- to 40-pound beaded gowns. In high heels.

“That killed my knees,” she says.

There are beaded gowns, stairs and high heels in “Dolly” too. But with age comes wisdom.

She sees “the Dallas Cowboy guy in Dallas” (a Dr. Daniel Cooper) and “the New York Giant guy in New York.” (That’s Dr. Stephen O’Brien.)

To help her stay healthy throughout the tour, “they’ve got me hooked up with the best football team doctors all across the country so I can manage my knee stuff!” says Buckley.

She’ll need all the help she can get to keep in shape for choreography by Warren Carlyle.

“I had to work my ass off to be strong enough for ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and I was in my mid-40s. And now, I’m 71 years old and I’m like, ’Are you kidding me? You want me to hop, skip and jump?”

She had a breakthrough recently, when they did the showstopping number “Hello Dolly” — Dolly descends a long flight of stairs accompanied by a swarm of admiring young men — for the first time.

“It went well, and I was ecstatic when I came home! I’ve been so excited ever since!”

She had her final costume fitting around the same time. “The clothes are ... mouthwatering is the right word,” she says, and they should be, having been fashioned by Santo Loquasto, who won a 2017 Tony for his opulent creations.

That includes Dolly’s signature red dress.

“I’ve been working really hard to be able to fit that red dress,” she says. “No Tex-Mex food!”

Before running to a voice lesson, she has one request:

“Pray for my knees.” The following descriptions are based on information provided by Playhouse Square and the reporter’s own notebook. 2018-19 KeyBank Broadway Series at Playhouse Square

Sunday, Sept. 30-Sunday, Oct. 21, Connor Palace: “Hello, Dolly!” Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Michael Stewart. Directed by Jerry Zaks. (The final performance on Oct. 21 will be a 1 p.m. matinee. There will be no evening show.)

Widow and matchmaker Dolly Levi knows what’s best for all the young lovers in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. But everything changes when she decides that her next match will be her own.

When Betty Buckley launches the national tour of the four-time Tony Award-winning revival at Connor Palace, she will be performing on the stage where the indefatigable Carol Channing appeared in 1995 in her farewell “Dolly” tour.

Tuesday, Oct. 30-Sunday, Nov. 18, Connor Palace: “Les Miserables.” Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg. Lyrics by James Fenton. Book by Alain Boublil and Schonberg. Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell.

Thanks to the runaway success of the musical, a shorthand description will suffice: Jean Valjean runs, Javert gives chase, Fantine dies, Cosette cries.

Not only is the 1987 Broadway classic based on Victor Hugo’s epic historical novel, the set of this 2104 revival is inspired by the paintings of Hugo as well.

Tuesday, Jan. 29-Sunday, Feb. 17, KeyBank State Theatre: “Miss Saigon.” Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg. Lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. Book by Boublil and Schonberg. Directed by Laurence Connor.

In the last days of the Vietnam War, a Vietnamese girl falls for an American GI, but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon.

The first time the operatic epic hit Playhouse Square, the door on the loading dock had to be expanded to accommodate the show’s famous helicopter. And, while there is similar whirlybird wizardry in this 2017 revival, it seeks to blow audiences away not with special effects but the power of its love story.

Tuesday, March 5-Sunday, March 24, Connor Palace: “School of Rock.” Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Book by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Laurence Connor.

Wannabe rock star Dewey Finn poses as a substitute teacher at a prestigious prep school, where he turns a class of straight-A students into an eardrum-shredding rock band.

With “Stick It to the Man” and other songs in the infectious score, Lloyd Webber returns to his roots as a writer of rock musicals.

Tuesday, April 23-Sunday, May 12, Connor Palace: “A Bronx Tale.” Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Book by Chazz Palminteri. Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks.

Based on the true-life story of Oscar nominee Palminteri, this streetwise musical set in the Bronx in the 1960s features young Calogero, caught between the father he loves and the mob boss he’d love to be.

One critic called the production a polished, stylish marriage of “West Side Story” and “Jersey Boys.”

Tuesday, June 11-Sunday, June 30, Connor Palace: “Dear Evan Hansen.” Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Book by Steven Levenson. Directed by Michael Greif.

High school senior Evan Hansen is about to get the one thing he’s always wanted: a chance to fit in. But it means living a lie and being somebody he’s not.

The 2017 best musical is composed by the Oscar-winning team of “La La Land” fame, bringing an interior, singer-songwriter style of writing to the stage.

Tuesday, July 9-Sunday, July 28, Connor Palace: “Come From Away.” Music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Book by Sankoff and Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley.

The true story of 7,000 passengers stranded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the small town in Newfoundland that welcomed them.

The small but mighty unlikely Broadway hit won a Tony for director Ashley and the cheers and tears of audiences and critics alike, proving that everyday heroes belong on the world’s biggest stage.

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