On the second night of our trip to New York City we saw “Hello, Dolly!” at the Shubert Theater on West 44th Street. This was the first time I’d seen a play in the Broadway theater district. It struck me that most of the theaters are not actually on Broadway, but instead are located on the cross streets near Times Square.
Around six o’clock in the evening the area is teeming with people trying to get to the theater on time. The show we attended had a sign saying late arrivals will not be seated until intermission, so there is a sense of anxious urgency, especially when you’ve paid a lot of money for your tickets. Some people don’t like cities because they don’t like crowds. If that’s you, avoid Times Square. Myself being someone who likes cities and crowds, getting to the theater was chaotic and invigorating, being among all those thousands of people sharing a similar experience. To me, the place had a warm, joyous energy.
There were two long lines of people waiting to get into the theater and, being new, we didn’t know if which line we were in made any difference. We asked people standing next to us and they said they were wondering the same thing. It turned out there was no difference and once the lines started moving, they moved quickly.
Once inside there is a bit of a jumble in the lobby, which felt cramped. This was ameliorated to a large degree by the excellent staff at the theater, who were very helpful and pleasant. Real pros. I went to coat check and they charge a dollar to hold your stuff. I forgot to bring cash with me and the staff person said I could pay him at the end of the performance. When I went back I still didn’t have any cash and he gave me my stuff anyway, and was nice and understanding. I felt bad because I tip most everyone; I think that’s an important part of the economy.
So now we get to the part of this post where I “review” the play. Reader beware: I consider myself a novice observer of live dramatic arts. I’ve seen about twenty live dramatic performances, including six musicals, so understand this is my subjective opinion as someone who witnessed this particular performance on Saturday, April 1, 2017. I don’t present myself as someone you should take seriously as an expert on Broadway musicals. But maybe you have about the same level of experience. With that in mind…
I’d never seen “Hello, Dolly!” before, except for the film adaptation starring Barbara Streisand, which I own on Blu-Ray. Those who’ve never seen the film or dramatic version of “Hello, Dolly!” might have a meta-level introduction to it, if they’ve seen the Pixar film, “WALL-E,” which cameos scenes from “Hello, Dolly!” via an old video tape that the robot in “WALL-E” plays over and over. In the weeks between when I bought the tickets and when I saw the show, I was wondering how the play would compare to the film I know so well. For the uninitiated, “Hello, Dolly” is a romantic comedy set in early 20th century New York City. The main character, Dolly Levi, is a widowed matchmaker who wants to marry a semi-wealthy bachelor, Horace Vendergelder, owner of a grain and feed store. The comedy revolves around Dolly’s efforts to fix up Horace’s store clerk’s, Cornelius and Barnaby, with two women that work in a hat shop, including one to whom Horace intends to propose marriage.
There was an added level of charm conveyed by the setting of the musical. What could be better than seeing a musical in New York City when the setting is…New York City!
One question in my mind about this performance involves the casting of Bette Midler in the lead role of Dolly Levi. She did a great job, in my opinion. She may not be the best singer, or the best actress, but she is a great entertainer, with loads of star power. Indeed, it was the star power that had me questioning whether the quality of the overall performance relied too much on Midler’s cult of personality. For example, some of the best songs in “Hello, Dolly!” are performed by secondary cast members. I noted that those songs didn’t get the same level of reaction from the audience. In particular, the great love song “It Only Takes A Moment” received what I thought was tepid applause, as did the song “Elegance.” On the other hand, Midler got a standing ovation when she first appeared on the stage, before she sang a note. It would be interesting to see the musical again with the role of Dolly Levi played by the understudy, a woman named Donna Murphy, who will take over the lead role in a limited capacity starting in June.
Aside from Midler, my favorite performance was by David Hyde Pierce in the lead male role of Horace Vandergelder. He managed to wring out every ounce of humor from his lines, with incredible comic timing and physicality. His performance was subtle and I was impressed by his artistry. In fact, the whole cast was great. I also enjoyed the comic interplay of the two bachelors, Cornelius and Barnaby, played by Gavin Creel and Taylor Trensch. The Barnaby character did this funny thing where he would imply slyly that he has a man-crush on Cornelius. Like, what are those guys doing down there in the basement of the grain and feed store? And why is Cornelius 30 years old and vows to not go back to Yonkers from New York City “until we kiss a girl?”
Another stand out was Beanie Feldstein in the role of Minnie Faye, the secondary character from the hat shop. Beanie has, shall we say, an atypical “look” for an actress. Short, a bit on the heavy side, etc. Nonetheless, her acting, dancing, and singing were delicate and polished. She stole every seen she was in.
For me, the two highlights were the songs “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “Before the Parade Passes By.” The title song, “Hello, Dolly!” was great, as well, but Midler really cut lose on “Parade.” The tone of her vocals on that number exuded a melancholy world weariness at the beginning, then, as though her character was not going to give in to life that easily, built to a rousing finish.
But for me, the best of all was “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” Starting with that famous line sung by Cornelius:
Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers
Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby
There’s a slick town, Barnaby!
A had a huge grin plastered on my face through that whole number. The only thing is that I love the show stopping dance sequence from the film. The stage at the Shubert was a bit too small to attempt to replicate that.
Then, of course, the theme song, preceded by the centerpiece dance routine performed by the waiters at the fictional restaurant, Harmonia Gardens. It was over the top, and by the end the dancers were breathing heavily from their exertions.
I recommend seeing “Hello, Dolly!” if you’re in New York. It’s the first Broadway revival of this particular musical since the original run, according to Broadway.com. The tickets are expensive if you’re not able to avoid after-market ticketing services, but it’s a throughly entertaining, extremely charming Broadway experience.