Hello, Dolly!

  • Post author:
  • Reading time:8 mins read

Hello, Dolly!

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami, FL, November 25, 2018

Reviewed by Todd Sussman for Cabaret Scenes

Betty Buckley
Photo: Todd Sussman

When Bette Midler sang the words “Dolly’ll never go away again” in the Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! in early 2017, she wasn’t kidding. Bernadette Peters followed in her legendary footsteps on the Great White Way, and then Midler reprised her role for one last blast in a mid-to-late summer run this year.  

Cabaret aficionados enjoyed yet another dose of Dolly in last October’s salute to songwriter Jerry Herman during the 29th New York Cabaret Convention. Exuberant hostess-with-the-mostess Klea Blackhurst opened with a song from the film version written specifically for Barbra Streisand, “Just Leave Everything to Me,” and closed the show with an Ethel Merman Dolly exclusive, “World Take Me Back,” segueing into the more prevalent, similarly themed showstopper “Before the Parade Passes By.” In between, noteworthy cabaret performers changed up interpretations of Dolly chestnuts, as cabaret performers often do, with Christine Pedi serving up a slower-tempoed “Dancing,” Celia Berk singing a stark and elegant “It Only Takes a Moment,” and Renee Katz giving the audience an aching, pining rendition of “Ribbons Down My Back,” so different in tone from the optimistic version typically heard on Broadway. 

In November, Hello Again, Dolly!, a special tribute to the 1969 film ended its nine-month showcase in New York’s Hudson Highlands, where large portions of the movie were shot. The celebration included a festival in Garrison and an exhibit at the nearby Putnam History Museum in Cold Spring. The Streisand movie put these locales on the map, with their picturesque hills, rolling streams, and prominent views of the Hudson River. Exhibit curator Christopher Radko went to great lengths to amass memorabilia from the original release, including rare artifacts and photographs from the production, along with the piece de resistance, the original costume Streisand wore in the opening scene. In Garrison, visitors were able to see firsthand the buildings and structures that appear in the film, including Horace Vandergelder’s hay and feed store. It was a true “time machine” experience.

As you can see, Dolly came back in a big way, and now it’s Betty Buckley’s turn to descend the grand staircase at the Harmonia Gardens as she tries Miss Levi on for size in the new national tour. I caught her performance during its Miami, Florida stop. 

For those who were unable to make it to Manhattan for Midler’s Tony-winning tour de force, a replica of the sets, costumes, and staging is traversing the country, albeit with Buckley wearing the gowns and the feathers this time out. Indeed, Jerry Zaks, who directed Midler in the Broadway version, is also directing the tour, with the entire creative team from Broadway in tow. I had the great good fortune to see Midler work her magic. She had colossal shoes to fill in a role so indelibly linked to the actress who originated it, Carol Channing. Channing spent a major portion of her career playing Dolly on Broadway, on tours, and in her own earlier revival. Of course, Midler was more than up for the job. She killed it, as they say.

It is a rarity for a star—make that superstar—of Midler’s stature to appear in any Broadway show, and not surprisingly, she opted out of the tour. But do not despair, Buckley is a legend in her own right.  She is a versatile actress and singer who has carved a memorable niche in film (Carrie, Tender Mercies), television (Eight Is Enough), recordings, and, perhaps most notably, on Broadway. She is a strong enough presence to transcend full-feline makeup and win a Tony for her brilliant work in Cats as Grizabella. 

For Hello, Dolly, she brings an emotional gravitas to the part that commands respect and while less playful, if you will, than the Divine Miss M, she is altogether charming.  As the meddling matchmaker with a business card for every imaginable task (the show’s greatest running gag that always has a guaranteed payoff), she can bring the humor. Yet it’s the dramatic Buckley that wins the day, bringing a torrent of tears—first hers and then ours. For Act I’s iconic closer, “Before the Parade Passes By,” she makes you feel that this mostly merry widow has been missing out for too long. She is ready to rejoin the human race, and she has us rooting for her. Buckley is in magnificent alto voice and, after all these years, she can still dazzle, whether she’s singing Herman’s often intricate rhymes or belting out the big finishes. 

For the broader comedic elements, Buckley elicits the cheer as well, such as when Dolly devours a turkey leg until there is nothing left on the bone. Of course, nobody can outdo Midler in turning a simple nosh into a four-course feast, building riotous laugh upon laugh. Comparisons aside, Buckley gets under Dolly’s skin and makes this tour her own. 

It helps that her supporting players excel in their roles. Lewis J. Stadlen huffs and puffs and then gets the audience on his side as Yonkers’ stingy half-a-millionaire, Horace Vandergelder, who doesn’t realize the ever-scheming Dolly has set her sights on him until it’s too late. Nic Rouleau and Jess LeProtto as, respectively, Cornelius and Barnaby, are the lovable store clerks eager to experience the big city, gourmet dining, and romance.

Likewise, the objects of their affections, Analisa Leaming and Kristen Hahn as Irene and Minnie respectively, bring warmth and wit to their characters. Leaming earns additional points for her gorgeous rendition of “Ribbons Down My Back.”  She elevates the hope and yearning of Irene with her pitch-perfect vocals.

And then there are those costumes. Santo Loquasto took home the Tony for his creations, designed to inspire awe via a pastel palette and heightened by a sumptuous set that seems to make them glow. By the way, Loquasto also designed the set. These days, touring companies will often skimp on the costumes and sets, but this direct-from-Broadway Dolly is a noteworthy exception. 

Undeniably, the hallmark of this good old-fashioned musical is Herman’s good, old-fashioned score. Just about every song is a hit as it defines the character singing it and amplifies the feel-good ambience. They truly don’t write them like this anymore—“Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Dancing,” “Elegance”—there’s one beloved number after another, leading up to the show’s lavish centerpiece, its crowd-pleasing title song. Herman’s score for this show is among his most enduring and celebrated.

Two extended instrumental segments found in Act II, “The Waiters’ Gallop” and “The Contest”—in addition to spotlighting Warren Carlyle’s fancy choreography and keeping the dancing ensemble on its toes—give the audience the opportunity to really hear and appreciate Herman’s spectacular and uplifting music. Enthusiasts may also notice that in “The Contest” medley, “It Takes a Woman,” minus the vocals, has virtually the same melody as “We Need a Little Christmas” from Herman’s Mame. He is a bona fide genius at being able to write a completely new set of lyrics to one of his famed compositions and having the latter song sound equally impressive. (The 29th Cabaret Convention crowd heard it for themselves with “It’s Today” from Mame performed in Act I, and “There Is No Tune Like a Show Tune” from Nightcap in Act 2. Same music, different lyrics—both wonderful.) 

Hello, Dolly! is touring the country through August 2019. If you want to see Betty Buckley all dolled up and singing that song—and why wouldn’t you?—now is your chance.

Todd Sussman

Todd Sussman is a graduate of Columbia University, where he studied journalism and film. A longtime entertainment writer, he is the author of the Blockbuster Video books, The Greatest Movies of All Time, Volumes 1 & 2. He began his writing career as the film critic for The Miami News and soon became the editor of Blockbuster Video Magazine. For his work on the magazine, Todd received an Addy Award for Best In-House Publication, one of several Addy honors he holds. The Walt Disney Company commissioned him to write an interview promoting the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (for which Todd wrote the questions as well as the answers, in character as the beloved Roger Rabbit). He had the privilege of working as the Liner Notes Editor on the following projects for Barbra Streisand: Encore (her 11th Number One album), Release Me 2 (with various collector editions), and her tour program for The Music…The Mem’ries…The Magic! He also edited the liner notes for: A Capitol Christmas - Volumes 1 & 2, Neil Diamond’s Classic Diamonds, Nat King Cole & Friends’ A Sentimental Christmas, and Kristin Chenoweth’s Happiness Is Christmas. Recent cover stories for Cabaret Scenes include Johnny Mathis, Kristin Chenoweth, and Stephen Schwartz.