Based on the buzz, cheers and applause that greeted even familiar songs in the overture, Bette Midler, could’ve performed Dolly Levi with a bag over her head and received standing ovations. Well, not quite, but you get the idea. Increasingly preconceived theater opinions seem to have reached a pinnacle. When ticket costs are substantial and the New York Times review is good, audiences are damn well going to appreciate the hell out of a show.
Long story short: In her capacity as matchmaker to wealthy Yonkers citizen, “half a millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (David Hyde Pierce), widow Dolly Levi eliminates milliner Irene Molloy (Kate Baldwin) as a candidate by implicating immorality. She then fixes Irene up with Horace’s ingenuous chief clerk, Cornelius Hackl (Gavin Creel). Second clerk Barnaby Tucker (Taylor Trensch) reaps the benefits, falling in with his very first girl, Irene’s assistant Minnie Fay (Beanie Feldstein). Almost incidentally, Dolly also facilitates the marriage of disapproved suitor Ambrose Kemper (Will Burton) to young Ermengarde Vandergelder (Melanie Moore).
Bette Midler, David Hyde Pierce
Horace Vandergerlder is effectively freed to be ensnared by the matchmaker herself.
I myself am a fan of Midler who can, as a rule, act, sing, and commandeer a stage with one hand tied behind her back. In Director Jerry Zak’s production, however, acting has become the kind of self conscious mugging that might be sequenced as: Get ready, I’m going to be funny, I’m being funny, Wait-did you get it, I’ll do it again.
The fourth wall has been jettisoned in favor of overt self consciousness and extensive milking of comic “bits” which the leading lady sometimes literally repeats for several minutes. The familiar eloquent wink is now broad vaudeville. Not for a moment does one attribute any sympathetic emotion to a heroine more interested in playing to the crowd than her fellow characters.
Beanie Feldstein, Taylor Trensch, Kate Baldwin, Gavin Creel
Whether from exhaustion, throat strain, or a cold tonight, Midler utilizes limited range, rarely holds a note and often misses one. Her sound is scratchy, verve diminished. Dancing seems an effort. This is not to say the talent doesn’t intermittently deliver, but…
Like most with whom I spoke, I considered David Hyde Pierce an odd choice for the role of Horace Vandergelder who’s generally big, slow, and gruff. Much to one’s surprise, the actor pulls it off. Pierce brings his own wry, deadpan perfection to the role. Manipulation of an unaccustomed mustache is ridiculously effective.
David Hyde Pierce, Bette Midler
Kate Baldwin (Irene Molloy), also typically splendid, performs the beautiful “Ribbons Down My Back” without an ounce of femininity, tenderness or hope. Only later, do we see flickers of Irene.
Gavin Creel (Cornelius Hackl) sings well, dances swell, and manages characterization even in this wide brushstroke interpretation. He’s attractive, thoroughly believable and a pleasure to watch.
As Minnie Fay, Beanie Feldstein uses saucer eyes and physical comic timing like a silent film actress. Taylor Trensch makes a cute, credibly naïve, Barnaby Tucker.
As in the past, Jerry Zaks has a deft hand with sight gags. When Cornelius and Barnaby hide from their boss in Irene’s shop, farce becomes a Rube Goldberg vision. (Baldwin handles this adroitly.) The young men’s occasional synchronized reactions invariably elicit a smile. Horace’s conversation with the mannequin he mistakes for Miss Money, potential bride #2, is such sheer Hyde Pierce, it may have been written for this version. Dolly’s continuing to eat dinner during the scene in court would be much funnier if she weren’t still sitting at The Harmonia Gardens Restaurant table with those arraigned watching.
Why Zaks chooses to present several solos as in-one (in front of the curtain) is a mystery. Jerked from plot line perhaps because of necessary scenery changes, we watch songs stripped of context. Dolly’s “So Long Dearie” without Horace to address is ludicrous.
Continuity Notes: Dolly enters Irene’s shop in one hat and shortly appears down the street wearing the same dress, but a boater she had on in an earlier scene. Later, she briefly leaves the courtroom (while others sing), returning to confront Horace in another dress!
Santo Loquasto does a marvelous job with detailed Costumes in mouthwatering colors. Scene-setting drawings seem to be in opposition to the bright, brash mood of the musical, however. A train that occupies most of the stage, almost full scale horses and carts, and Vandergelder’s wonderfully chock-a-block Hay and Feed Store are appealing and inventive.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening: Bette Midler
Based on the play The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder
Book by Michael Stewart
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Sam S. Shubert Theatre
225 West 44th Street
It’s so nice to feel you hold me again
No, it doesn’t matter where you have been
My heart welcomes you back home again
“Old Friend,” Thom Bell, Linda Creed
Variety once described Phyllis Hyman’s voice as “sultry, sassy, and vocally surprising.” It was that voice that reached out to Jacqueline B. Arnold in songs like “Old Friend.” “Originally, her voice [drew me in],” Arnold explained. “Her haunted sounds. She always made me wonder what she was feeling when she recorded all these songs.”
When Arnold got older, she sought out more information about Hyman. “Listening and understanding the lyrics…peaked my curiosity about a person whose biggest wish was just to be loved,” she said. Hyman appeared in Sophisticated Ladies, a musical based on the music of Duke Ellington, which ran on Broadway from 1981 to 1983. She earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. Wider recognition, however, punctuated by a series of lost opportunities, eluded her. On June 30, 1995, Hyman committed suicide, hours before she was to perform at the Apollo Theater. On July 6, a week later, she would have turned 46.
Jacqueline B. Arnold
Now, Arnold is paying tribute to the singer, songwriter, and actress in An Evening with Phyllis Hyman, at New York’s Actors’ Temple Theatre, with six performances. (See the website for dates, times, and to purchase tickets.) Arnold brings her own considerable talents to this one-woman show. She has appeared in Broadway’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and in several National tours: Killer Queen in We Will Rock You, Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray, and Joanne Jefferson in Rent. She also had the privilege to tour with Bette Midler as a Harlette. Most recently, she created the role of Martha Wash in Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical.
Hyman’s story is a poignant one. She reportedly struggled with drug abuse and bipolar disorder. “Her mental illness really drew me to her in my adult years because it hit close to home,” said Arnold. “Like many of us, I know many people who suffer from mental illness. I believe telling her story on a public platform will bring even more awareness and hopefully will start a discussion within a community, specifically [among] the African American females who tend to not talk about it. We are told, `you will be ok’ or `suck it up’ or we don’t talk about it at all because we are embarrassed. I believe it is an important conversation to have, it can literally be life saving.”
As an artist, Arnold is devoted to making positive change through the arts, especially working with young people to help them grow into healthy and happy adults. She has been an instructor, counselor, and mentor to youth, specializing in those with depression and self-esteem issues. “I love their innocence and thirst for knowledge,” she said. “It is so fun to make a difference in a young person’s life through art. Building confidence or polishing a skill they have is so rewarding. It truly brings me joy to see kids dancing and singing.”
To prepare for her role as Hyman, Arnold did her research, reading Jason A. Michael’s Strength of a Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story. “It was a great chronological resource for facts, meaning it was a great place to start,” she said. “Luckily, we live in an age of information at our finger tips. Being able to watch footage of her live performances, interviews, and get to see her facial expressions and hear her voice really helped. I also was given the chance to speak to people who knew her and got to hear stories first hand of who she really was.”
Jacqueline, center, with the cast. Also pictured are producer Sheryl Lee Ralph (bottom row, left) and the show’s creators Kendrell Bowman and Anthony Wayne (bottom row, right).
Included in the show are a collection of Hyman’s biggest hits, those that were said to be her favorites and most memorable. “Funny enough I have always had a deeper toned voice, even when I was young, which made it natural to play someone with those same tones,” Arnold said. “I have always connected to people with similar voices and loved singing their songs, Phyllis Hyman, Anita Baker, etc. The research and learning about who she really was is enabling me to channel her and meld her with my talents.”
Last year marked 20 years since Hyman died. Her recordings are still available and sought out by a loyal base of fans. Her videos on YouTube have millions of hits. But, according to Arnold, Hyman’s legacy is about more than just music. “I believe a legacy is what people would want to leave behind, or what people would want to be said about them,” Arnold reflected. “Her biggest message is even if you appear to have it all, you could still be alone and have nothing, not even yourself. I can only imagine she would want more for those who loved her, both those who knew her and those who did not, her fans. I hope her legacy and memory shines a light on mental and emotional illness.”
Arnold’s wish is that audiences will not only enjoy An Evening with Phyllis Hyman, but be inspired. “As a performer, I always hope they have been thoroughly entertained,” she said. “I always say there is a bonus if you leave with wanting to have a discussion about what you watched. For this show, wanting to talk about being in love, out of love, mental illness or being alone. As long as real conversations are happening, I feel that I have done my job.”
Top photo: Jacqueline B. Arnold-as Phyllis Hyman in An Evening with Phyllis Hyman. Photo Credit: Iconic.jpg.
Credit for other photos: Jeremy Daniel