In a recent Chicago Tribune interview, the iconic Betty Buckley – who’s starring in the first national tour of Hello, Dolly! – told critic Chris Jones that even if she has to “put up with a little comparison to this lady or that lady,” it’s all worth it in the end.
Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Betty Buckley’s. I’m also a fan of this production of this classic Jerry Herman/Michael Stewart musical, based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, having seen it twice in New York with Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters.
And I won’t compare, because both ladies were sublime. And Buckley is sublime for completely different and wonderful reasons.
In short, Buckley’s Dolly Gallagher Levi works so well because her creation is one of connection. She looks people straight in the eye and figures them out. She’s not simply the fast-talking salesman. She’s a woman who clearly revels in arranging things, even if the side-effect gets her closer to her end-goal: Matrimony with Yonkers’s half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (the sublime Lewis J. Stadlen).
But that’s not to say she’s any less delightful than Dolly should be. Buckley is right at home in this straightforward musical comedy – which is refreshing to see. My experience with the stage icon is through roles like Norma Desmond, Mama Rose and Margaret White from the musical version Stephen King’s Carrie – not exactly outright effervescent personalities. But Buckley’s Dolly is imbued with a no-nonsense directness (skillfully using her lower register to punctuate a line reading to great effect) that easily shifts to a mischievous or joyful twinkle in her eye.
And often, that twinkle manifests a tear. Buckley’s Dolly probably cries more readily than other Dollys I’ve seen (and no one cries onstage with more grace than Buckley). Some may argue that Dolly probably shouldn’t even be shedding a tear – Thornton Wilder created her as a clear-eyed widow with a singular goal. However, the delight of Hello, Dolly! is the show takes place mostly during a 24-hour period, and it’s a huge moment for Ms. Levi: After many years in solitude, she’s deciding, on this day, to rejoin the human race. And that certainly warrants a crack in the resolved surface.
And: I’ve never heard the “Ephraim, let me go” speech, which leads into the rousing first act finale, delivered with such intimacy (especially considering the size of the Oriental Theatre). Buckley is a master at pulling you in.
Luckily, Buckley is surrounded by a stunning supporting cast. Namely, Stadlen, who is the best Horace I’ve seen. Not only does he make a perfect foil for Buckley, he’s found a few well-chosen moments that give Horace some welcome humanity. For example, when he finally confesses he’s selected Dolly for his wife (oh, you don’t need a spoiler alert – this is musical comedy), most other Horaces would deliver the line as a throwaway, and then, after a beat, act surprised they’d said it out loud for a laugh. Stadlan simply says the line, and looks lovingly at Buckley. What could be a hammy moment (and, believe me, Stadlen can turn on the ham when needed), is simply a touching moment between two similar souls.
As Cornelius Hackl — the 33 year-old Chief Clerk who’s finally decided he’s taking the day off to find and kiss a girl — Nick Rouleau, looking like a spritely Ed Helms, is a sheer delight. And as his buddy and coworker Barnaby Tucker, Jess LeProtto dances like a dream and his vague, deadpan delivery had me guffawing in surprising places.
Analisa Leaming brings great fire and drive to hat shop owner and also widow Irene Molloy, and sings “Ribbons Down My Back” – one of the theatre’s most beautiful “I want” songs – with a silvery sheen. And Kristen Hahn is one of the most unique Minnie Fays I’ve seen – I loved every second she was onstage.
Director Jerry Zacks, along with his award-winning design team (scenic and costume design by Santo Loquasto and lighting design by the legendary Natasha Katz), have basically reassembled the Broadway production for tour. A few set pieces have been rethought for the road (mainly Irene Molloy’s hat shop), but it’s pretty much all there, and it’s all as splendid as can be. In fact, my date for the evening literally started crying during “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” she was so moved by the onstage eye candy.
And, let’s be honest, I was misting up as well.
This is a perfect production of a perfect musical. And the cast for this national tour is first-rate. Go visit Dolly – you won’t be disappointed.
“Hello, Dolly!” plays through November 17 at the Oriental Theatre. More info here >