Here’s a motto a Yonkers half-a-millionaire could get behind: What isn’t broken doesn’t need fixing. Especially when it’s got Bernadette Peters.
To review one theater legend stepping in for another is to play a game of contrasts, but as Broadway’s current revival of Hello, Dolly! welcomes a new lead (Bette Midler departed the role, which won her a Tony Award, in January; Peters officially opens Thursday night), so much of the charm of this production is in what hasn’t changed. Like Midler before her, Peters is larger than life but game for a laugh. She knows she can’t disappear beneath that feathered headpiece, so she uses the glare of her own star power to fuel the myth of Dolly Gallagher Levi, another woman returning “home” after a time away. For Peters, as for Midler, to sing about being back where she belongs is to invite the whole room in on her story. She is glamorous and brassy and quintessentially New York; she descends a staircase like she invented stairs.
But here’s the paradox: Both women understand that to play Dolly is to play yourself, and so the thread binding their performances is also what makes them unique. Peters’ Dolly may be familiar, but she’s still a new creation. Where Midler’s personality soared to the back of the balcony, Peters engages with the audience on a more intimate level, at times working the crowd like a comedian singling out a spectator. Gliding along the passerelle, she gestures beatifically to specific people at her feet, holding eye contact like she knows she’s doing you a favor. I could swear her “So Long Dearie” was to me.
In short, she plays Dolly like a grade-A meddler, like the matchmaker she is. Peters trades the consistent, unapologetic radiance of her predecessor for a more controlled spark, as if she’s calibrating herself to the people around her. When she’s alone, she softens, bringing out the widowed Dolly’s vulnerability. Peters’ unparalleled ability to act through song (she is a Sondheim staple, after all) is clearest in the Act 1 capper “Before the Parade Passes By,” which moves from mournful to jubilant as Dolly bounces back to life. Some Dollys seem like they’d be happier joining a stage show, but Peters crafts a woman who carries just enough grief that you actually believe she wants a happy ending with Horace Vandergelder.
She’s got a top-notch one in Victor Garber, who inherits a wardrobe full of plaid waistcoats from David Hyde Pierce. The marriage of actor and role here is so neat, you’d think Dolly made the match; Garber does stodgy, befuddled warmth better than anyone in the business. He’s delightful at “Penny in My Pocket,” the second-act opener restored for this production despite being cut from the original. Garber’s spin on the character makes a better case for the song’s inclusion: While Pierce played Horace as a gruff tightwad uncomfortable with attention, Garber imbues him with the air of a showman just waiting for someone to show off to. Back in a Broadway musical for the first time in 23 years, Garber feeds the aura of the show with his own legacy just as Peters does, albeit more quietly. It’s self-fulfilling casting: Watching these two titans of theater joyfully revive each other mirrors the core of the story.
The other new cast members are strong across the board. Charlie Stemp (taking over for Taylor Trensch, now the lead in Dear Evan Hansen) steals scenes as wide-eyed clerk Barnaby Tucker: He falls right into step alongside Tony winner Gavin Creel’s Cornelius Hackl, and he’s downright adorable with Molly Griggs’ Minnie Fay, a role last filled by Lady Bird’s Beanie Feldstein. Griggs gives a winningly dry take on the shopgirl, milking her entrance for laughs as she makes the most of the crowd’s applause for Kate Baldwin, who’s still luminous as Irene Molloy.
Applause is a character all its own in Hello, Dolly!, a show about people in search of an audience, even an audience of one. The atmosphere in the Shubert Theatre is one of mutual support: performer to crowd, performer to scene partner, even performer to costume and set piece. Peters understands this. In the Feb. 17 preview I attended, the actress’ skirt caught twice on a tablecloth. The second time it happened, Peters untangled herself, patted the table like she might pat the head of a small child, and cooed, “I love you too.” And I believed that she did. A