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