A dimply new star has joined the cast of “Hello, Dolly!” and he’s delightful — oh wait.
OK, then: A dimply new star has joined the cast of “Hello, Dolly!” and she’s delightful.
And something more, too.
Bernadette Peters, who turns 70 next week, doesn’t need to step into anyone’s shoes at this point in her 60-year Broadway career. That she would take over the role of Dolly Levi from Bette Midler (and her alternate, Donna Murphy) means she was interested in the challenge, not the provenance. I imagine she understood that there was something she could bring to the part that no one else could.
That something is not a stage personality filled with gregarious high spirits. Peters is neither the hoyden type nor the winking type, at least not since her days as a self-parodying chorine. Where Midler wrung laughs from a line like “I’m tired, Ephraim, tired of living from hand to mouth” — sometimes pretending to collapse in decrepitude — Peters doesn’t even go for a giggle. She makes it clear that Dolly is talking about real hardships: the anxiety of work and the loneliness of a widow.
Peters is in fact a widow. (Her husband died in a helicopter crash in 2005.) So is Murphy, who nevertheless seemed to revel, like Midler, in the role’s brightest colors. For all the thoughtfulness she brought to the character, Murphy was more than comfortable with Dolly’s swanning tours of the passerelle; she giddily partook in the loop of absorption and reflection that eventually whips the audience’s love into a kind of hysteria.
Peters gets all that, and returns it. She sings the Jerry Herman songs thrillingly, of course. But if her performance is more like Murphy’s than like Midler’s, it has an even darker underlay. I don’t mean that she isn’t funny; she is — though I’m not sure I really believed, in the famous scene at the Harmonia Gardens, that a woman so disciplined in her diet that she will eat just “three smiles of grapefruit” for breakfast would ever chow down on the giant turkey leg set before her.
The darkness is more of an aura or predilection. Peters seems most truly herself not in charm numbers like “I Put My Hand In” but in spoken or sung soliloquies like “Before the Parade Passes By.” In such moments Dolly, the old meddler, isn’t conning anyone; she’s being honest with herself. The final scenes, even as they bring her financial and marital woes to an end, are heartbreaking in the way all successful campaigns are if looked at closely enough.
You don’t expect to see that in a 1960s musical comedy, especially one as lovingly and successfully reincarnated as “Hello, Dolly!” is in Jerry Zaks’ revival. The explosion-in-a-Necco-factory sets and costumes (by Santo Loquasto) and the eccentric Gower Champion choreography, restaged by Warren Carlyle, continue to astonish; you actually gasp at the hats and postures.
But a gap may be opening up between the production’s style and Peters’. Stemp and the other new principals — Victor Garber as Dolly’s intended, Horace Vandergelder; Molly Griggs as the milliner’s assistant, Minnie Fay — match the bright polish of the original cast, which has grown a bit zany with time.
Garber has a breezier take on Vandergelder than did David Hyde Pierce; the subtext of his bluster is never really in doubt. Griggs is charming and light as a bubble. And Stemp, as a 17-year-old clerk looking for adventure, doesn’t seem so much excitable as convulsive. Carlyle has given him some acrobatic new dance moves to make hay of his hyperkinesis.
Peters goes along with all this, to a point. But sometimes I felt she would rather observe the parade than be in it. (Showbiz was never her idea.) Personally, I’m a sucker for that: I think it gives this “Dolly” a fascinating new valence.
And “Dolly” can handle it. After all, it has accommodated actresses as different as Carol Channing (the original) and Tovah Feldshuh over the years. However peppy and farcical it gets, it is built on a strong foundation; Michael Stewart’s book draws heavily on the dramatic and real-world wisdom of its immediate source, Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker.”
That play, itself worth reviving, is filled with philosophical asides that the musical borrows almost whole. “The surest way to keep us out of harm is to give us the four or five human pleasures that are our right in the world,” goes the best of these asides, and as spoken passionately by Peters, herself one of those four or five human pleasures, it has never sounded so true.
“And that takes a little money,” she adds.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.