I love love love love Bette Midler. She is my girl—you know? I saw her shows in the ’70s and ’80s. The giant inflated boobs, the fish tail, the bawdy repartee. We basically grew up together. She was the singer I wanted to be when I was leaning in that direction for several years, and she gave me permission to step outside of my Jersey girl norms.
Seeing her this week in previews for “Hello, Dolly!” (directed by Jerry Zaks) was kind of a dream come true. And, judging from the screams from the crowd when she first appeared on stage, it was the same for the rest of the audience at the legendary Shubert Theater. Bette–I know she won’t mind me calling her by her first name–has always had the ability to “take the stage” in any show. Always the Divine Ms. M. And this time was no different. There’s a reason the show, still in previews, recently smashed records, grossing over $1.96 million in a single week.
I soon got over the cognitive dissonance of seeing an actress whose a gutsy feminist in real life playing the conniving but loveable yenta Dolly Gallagher Levi, tricking half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (David Hyde Pierce) into marrying her. The number in Act I, “It Takes a Woman” did set my teeth on edge, as the male chorus and Vandergelder extol the virtues of having a woman around to clean the drains and mop the floors–but I slapped my face and remembered this was a period piece, set before women could vote.
I was able to release my clenched jaw when Dolly jokes that her late husband said marriage was to “convince a housekeeper that she was a house owner.” It was when she sang “Before the Parade Passes By” that my immersion in 1865 (I think) was complete and I could let it go. Bette’s powerful voice still commands the room, and did not fail to bring me to tears at the sheer joy of hearing it. Her skill and agility in comedy also came shining through, even when a flubbed line brought on a moment of ad-libs. I might even have relished that bit the most.
David Hyde Pierce nailed his Yonkers accent, and the line when he says “Money is like manure, it’s no good unless you spread it around so that new things can grow,” got an inordinate amount of applause, I believe because of the political climate right now.
Let me just say that the costumes were extravagant and gorgeous and nothing less than one would expect for our diva as Dolly. The sheer vibrancy of the colors on stage brought up my serotonin levels. Several times during the show, the set itself got applause. The horse drawn carriage with a “horse” doing kicks, the life size train rolling on stage, the rotating modular sections zooming us in and out of scenes. Likewise the dancing was thrilling. During “The Waiters’ Gallop” the dancing waiters commenced athletic leaping and juggling, including waiters having sword fights, balancing dozens of plates and skewering a chicken in mid-jump.
It is a show with legs, as they say, spanning decades. The music, by Jerry Herman, holds up extremely well in this revival. The show was first staged in 1964 with Carol Channing originating the Dolly role. My husband saw Pearl Bailey in the 1975 revival, and I remember Barbara Streisand and Walter Matthau in the 1969 film version. It is quintessential Broadway, bigger than life, and will leave you floating.
But for me, the best part was seeing a lifelong hero still making it happen, showing me once again that at our age (we are the same) we can still be in the game. Thanks, Bette.