“Hello, Dolly!” is a star vehicle plain and simple. It has been since the original Broadway and London productions over 50 years ago.
Thirty-eight seconds into the opening number of this always classy and now-classic musical, the likes of theater legends Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman have entered the stage on a horse-drawn trolley as the marvelously self-assured Dolly Gallagher Levi.
In the 2017 Broadway revival, Bette Midler raised the role’s sass quotient while her replacement, Bernadette Peters, offered a more endearing Dolly imbued with layers of charm and warmth. She was the polish, said The Washington Post, on Midler’s brass. She won the audience with her dimples, noted The New York Times, while Midler did so with a Cheshire cat’s grin.
So the question to ask and answer at the opening of the Playhouse Square launch of the touring “Hello, Dolly!” is what kind of Dolly is Tony Award-winning actress Betty Buckley, the woman New York Magazine labeled “The Voice of Broadway” two decades ago?
It is the only question, really, since there is no need to speculate about the show itself.
Songwriter Jerry Herman and book writer Michael Stewart’s handiwork is legendary. The original Broadway production of “Hello, Dolly!” ran for 2, 844 performances and swept the Tony Awards, winning 10, while the 2017 production won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, among others.
Set in the 1890s, the story revolves around the endlessly resourceful matchmaker who has set her sights and her own affections on the wealthy and curmudgeonly widower Horace Vandergelder. Caught in the web of romance in this delightfully lighthearted and wonderfully old-fashioned tale are Vandergelder’s two unworldly clerks, two unsuspecting women, and just about everyone else who crosses Dolly’s path.
The show has the hummable tunes this era of musicals was famous for, where gorgeous songs like “It Only Takes a Moment,” “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “Ribbons Down My Back” don’t so much progress the storyline as offer congenial commentary about it.
There is no need to speculate about the touring production either.
It is, after all, directed (Jerry Zaks), designed (scenic and costuming, Santo Loquasto) and choreographed (Warren Carlyle) by the same artists who spearheaded the Broadway revival.
All the astonishing eye-candy on stage – the Currier and Ives scenery that drops from the rafters, the ballet-infused Gay-Nineties dance moves that bring ensemble numbers like “The Waiters’ Gallop” and “The Contest” to life, and the Crayola-colored period costuming – is identical to the Broadway production.
On opening night, eager-to-applaud audience members gave an ovation to the overture performed by a huge orchestra under Robert Billing’s superb direction, to the scenic scrim revealed when the curtain opened, and to the set behind it when the scrim turned translucent. And, of course, they applauded the star playing Dolly upon her entrance, which has become obligatory.
So, what kind of Dolly is Betty Buckley?
Sadly, she is the least interesting thing on stage.
While in great voice and exuding the confidence of a pro, Buckley brings little to the role while stand-out performances by Lewis J. Stadlen as the comic foil Vandergelder, Nic Rouleau and Jess LeProtto as his endearing young clerks Cornelius and Barnaby, and Analisa Leaming and Kristen Hahn as their adorable love-interests Irene Molloy and Minnie Fay, are inventive, energetic and always entertaining.
Magnificently orchestrated company numbers orbit around Buckley rather than include her. And while she gets at the heart of the character when asking her late husband to bless her renouncement of widowhood and rejoin the human race in “Before the Parade Passes By,” her comedic moments – elongated in anticipation of the raucous reaction earned by past performers – fall rather flat.
“Hello, Dolly!” remains triumphant, but not because of the star at its center.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2018 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.