“Thank you, God.”
Dolly Levi tucks into the spread, fingers irreverently placed everywhere at once: thrust upon dumplings lighter than air, picking at salted beets from a silver dish, tracing the corners of her mouth with a pressed white napkin. They flutter, dive, and pluck, her eyes half-rolled back in her head, the shimmer of each scarlet sequin glinting off the crystal goblets of Harmonia Gardens as polka dancers swirl around the ballroom.
It’s a moment as quintessentially Dolly as the red plumage rising from her coiffure, at once both indulgent and presumptuous. This is a woman who takes her time with life, whose pursuit of pleasure and profit comes by her own hand, however heavily applied to the situation it might be. And never is that more apparent than when, following the riotous conclusion to the dance competition, the whole ensemble is quite literally suspended in time, the nervous faces of the rabble frozen and shadowed behind the luminous Mrs. Gallagher Levi as she savors every bite, sucking clean the turkey bone and closing her eyes in a silent prayer of relief.
These pockets of air bubble up frequently within the national revival tour of Hello, Dolly!, now emblazoned on the marquee outside SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco, Calif. This is where the true heart and humor of the show resides: in Jess LeProtto’s gravity-defying bell kicks during “Dancing” (one suspects his Barnaby Tucker would not require a full week’s worth of dancing lessons to master the “tango with passion seething,” as Dolly suggests), the tender way Lewis J. Stadlen’s Horace Vandergelder caresses a silver-haired mop in lieu of the sweetheart, mistress, and wife he craves, the awed silence preceding Cornelius Hackl’s (Nic Rouleau) epiphany that, despite losing his job and future prospects, he has gained the invaluable assurance of love during one wonderful day.
Fifty-five years after its premiere at St. James Theatre on January 20, 1964, Hello, Dolly! is still first and foremost a vehicle for its star performer. Ever since Carol Channing memorialized the sly, raspy-throated matchmaker, the role has been handed down to stage and screen icons like Mary Martin, Barbra Streisand, Tovah Feldshuh, Bette Midler, and Bernadette Peters. Here, those Dolly-sized boots are filled by Broadway legend Betty Buckley, long-since removed from her post as Andrew Lloyd Weber’s weepy Grizabella but every bit as welcome as Mrs. Levi is under the velvet canopies of her old stomping grounds.
Buckley is luminous as the widowed Dolly, emitting a radiance and grace that brings an endearingly vulnerable side to the character in a way that the exasperatingly comedic Channing and magnetic Streisand and delightfully droll Midler never quite managed. Her veneer is laid bare in the moments leading up to the Act I finale, “Before the Parade Passes By,” and the tears that glisten on her cheeks appear genuine as she reflects on the quiet loneliness of a life left unshared. She sidesteps any unseemly melodrama — an easy pitfall for a character burdened by the loss of a beloved husband — instead lifting into a hopeful refrain that reverberates across the audience and is returned in enthusiastic applause.
There’s no doubt that Hello, Dolly! is well-constructed for such a star. Every song comes with a built-in encore, every showstopping finale teased just a little too long for non-weekend audiences to fully appreciate (especially in the expansive Golden Gate Theatre, where a noticeable percentage of its 2,297 seats remain empty even on a bustling Thursday night). As with the 1964 original production, though, Tony-nominated director Jerry Zaks’ revival leaves plenty of space to showcase its talented ensemble.
Resplendent under the candy-colored lights of Natasha Katz’s design, decked out in jewel-toned brocades, laced bodices, and ruffled, well, everything from costumer and scene designer Santo Loquasto, the nineteen-piece company elevates the moments between Dolly’s solos, transforming the show from a one-woman act into a multi-tiered comedy of errors. They enact silent dramas in the background of 1890s New York City, duel with skewers on the red-carpeted staircase in Harmonia Gardens, and fill out the Fourteenth Street Parade with athletic displays, puffed chests, and sonorous harmonies.
Analisa Leaming and Kristen Hahn are pitch-perfect as Irene Molloy and Minnie Fay, respectively, from the effortless way Irene alternates between soaring soprano and sultry growl right down to the crinkle of Minnie’s nose as she titters, unexpectedly delighted by the laughter that ripples back toward the stage, that Miss Mortimer would be better served with “a nice heavy veil” if she intends to catch a beau anytime soon.
And while Hello, Dolly!‘s romantic storylines skew more PG than anything else, there’s an undeniable charm to the gangly-limbed Hackl and Tucker as they lead their powdered pink ladies through the streets of New York City, too blinded by puppy love to avoid the comic pitfalls of their next pudding-esque adventure. (The same cannot always be said for Stadlen’s Vandergelder, who exudes all the romantic quality of a mustachioed restauranteur in Little Italy and plays the half-a-millionaire with as much panache and subtlety.)
It is apt, too, that the biggest reaction of the night is reserved for the interlude leading up to the musical’s title number, during which head waiter Rudolph expertly conducts his “The Waiters’ Gallop” in a whirligig of champagne bottles, vegetable shish kabobs, glistening turkeys, striped ladyfingers, and brightly-colored delicacies.
In the small spaces left between the show’s buoyant songs, it is here that choreographer Warren Carlyle’s work shines brightest. If he hasn’t quite reinvented director-choreographer Gower Champion’s original staging, he’s certainly polished it to a dazzling sheen. Not one square inch of Harmonia Gardens is left unturned in the ruckus as dancers slide down the banisters, balance wobbling stacks of china plates, tumble with full bottles of wine, toss dishes like Frisbees, and leap from rolling dessert trays, all with mounting alacrity in anticipation of their favorite patron.
Indeed, only the arrival of Dolly herself — neck encrusted with diamonds, sparkling in silk gloves and feathers and tassels — proves strong enough to break the spell.
“Look at my dress,” she mouths, eyes alight with the kind of radiant joy that makes the audience an eager extension of the waiters who snap to her attention. We are all by her side, reveling in the 180-degree transformation she has spun since the first tentative notes of “Before the Parade Passes By” floated out to the balcony-bound ghost of Ephraim Levi. This is Dolly Gallagher Levi in her full glory, and we’ll be damned if we let ourselves forget it anytime soon.
Under the lights of Fourteenth Street, Dolly is overjoyed and overwhelmed and over par, and so are we. But it is an earlier refrain that sticks with us now, as the curtain is gently drawn over the happy couples: “Tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days.”
For a revival finding its home again in the hearts of New Yorkers, Floridians, Ohioans, Chicagoans, and San Franciscans, no words could be sweeter.
Performances reviewed: 7:30 p.m. showing on Thursday, February 21 and 7:30 p.m. showing on Wednesday, February 27. Understudies Timothy Shew (Horace Vandergelder), Corey Hummerston (Ambrose Kemper), Ian Liberto (Judge), and Nathan Keen (ensemble) seen in second performance only. Hello, Dolly! runs at the Golden Gate Theatre through March 17, 2019.