Bette Midler is winding up her run on Broadway as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly!– or Dolly Levi as Bette Midler in Hello, Bette– so I finally coughed up the $229 and saw her on Friday night at the Shubert Theater. You know, she wows the crowd, getting a standing ovation in the second act for pulling off the famous theme number (parodied years later by Mel Brooks as “Springtime for Hitler”). Her voice is top notch, she’s smiling from ear to ear and giving it all she’s got– which is plenty at age 72, the oldest performer to play Dolly on Broadway.
Bette’s run looked like a cash grab from day one. She’s making about $100,000 a week or more as the show has grossed an average of $2.4 million weekly– except when she’s not there. Midler’s had not a few ten day vacations through her season. But there she is, Bette Midler, large as life, probably in her final big run on Broadway and the only time she’s been in a proper musical. (“Clams on the Half Shell” doesn’t count.)
She’s splendiferous in the costumes, and knows when to chew scenes a la Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman. In the second act she can kibbitz and carry on just enough to make it look ad-libbed, but it’s clear she’s having some fun at least. And again, the voice– the voice was in rare form on Friday night, none of the hoarseness I’d heard about. Dolly has to shoulder some big numbers– “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before the Parade Passes By” and the big title sequence. To her credit, Bette not only survived those but knocked out a home run on her final number, a total solo called “So Long, Dearie.” She actually seemed to relish the solo.
The whole cast is top notch, especially Gavin Creel (from “Hair”) as the 33 year old virgin Cornelius, and the sensational Kate Baldwin as Irene Molloy, the young widow who gets with the program fast. Luckily, I think those two are sticking around when Midler is succeeded by Bernadette Peters in late January. David Hyde Pierce is a little miscast as Horace Vandergelder, but he pulls off the role with aplomb. The producers added a cut number from the original production to give DHP’s Horace some more substance– and it works.
Still, as a “Hello, Dolly!” expert (we saw it a lot as children and young adults), I kept getting the feeling that we were seeing “Hello, Bette!” Midler wasn’t convincing conveying Dolly’s grief for her dead husband, or Dolly’s sensible acknowledgment that it was time to move on. I do think Bernadette Peters is going to bring Carol Channing’s sensibility and maybe a little gravity to the role– she is no less a superstar. But for now, to wrap up 2017, Bette Midler got the last word: boffo.