A month ago — after hearing countless raves and watching Bette Midler refuse to be played off stage after winning at the Tony Awards — I dropped more money than I should admit to see the Divine Miss M play Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly!, finally conceding I couldn’t afford to miss what proved to be a perfect show-to-star alignment in a production that won four Tonys, including best revival of a musical. (You can read our original review of the production here.)
On Sunday night, I returned to the Shubert theater again, to say hello to a different, but no less joyful (and warmly received) Dolly — Donna Murphy, a two-time Tony winner who brought her own brand of star quality to the musical’s starring role.
Murphy, who just finished a two-week run as Dolly and will now return to stepping in for Midler on Tuesday nights, is neither better nor worse than the other actress she shares the role with. The star of Broadway’s Passion and The King and I — not to mention films like Center Stage and the animated musical Tangled — plays the meddling matchmaker in late-19th-century New York City with such charisma you can’t stop smiling from the moment she steps on stage. It’s Midler’s name above the theater’s marquee, but let’s make one thing clear: Murphy should not be regarded as a second-fiddle performer. She’s fantastic in this role, and she’s having a grand ol’ time doing it.
Watching Midler as Dolly involves doing just that — the awareness of seeing an icon and hearing that famous voice as she takes on the character of Dolly Levi. Murphy has her own fervent fanbase (the applause Sunday started right as the overture did, and she got a prolonged, enthusiastic introduction from the audience when she first appeared on stage), but her Dolly comes without that additional layer of spectacle (or call it Midlerness, if you’d like). She dives into the character and makes her an effervescent, winking protagonist — putting on a New Yawk accent, dancing gamely with a bevy of waiters in the showstopping title number, going to town on a delectable dinner as her costars (and the audience) watch in hilarious awe, and proudly waving a flag as the widowed Dolly declares she’s determined to live life fully again in “Before the Parade Passes By.”
The rest of the musical is as delightful as it was before. The colorful costumes and intricate choreography are each impressive, and the big-ensemble numbers like “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” remain showstoppers. David Hyde Pierce is endearingly gruff as Horace Vandegelder, the curmudgeonly half-a-millionaire Dolly hopes to match-make for herself. Gavin Creel (another Tony winner, for his featured role) is charming as Horace’s chief clerk, Cornelius Hackl, and Kate Baldwin brings a wicked sense of humor and heartfelt poignancy to Irene Molloy, another widow who hopes to seize life once more.
Midler’s presence in the show has brought Broadway buzz and box office dollars, but she can’t remain Dolly forever. While she hasn’t officially announced an end date, it’s reassuring to see another star make the role her own, and do it as winningly as Murphy has — all still glowing, crowing, going strong.