Bette Midler in 'Hello, Dolly!' The next big phenomenon hits Broadway

NEW YORK -- Outside Broadway's Shubert Theatre on Wednesday, guys were taking selfies while swathed in bright-red feather boas. Inside, film director Quentin Tarantino stood in line at the men's room. High-rollers took their third-row seats, carrying overpriced lattes. What could possibly be uniting such diverse parties?

Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!

The combination of star and show has created a good, old-fashioned box-office-busting phenomenon. I saw the excitement for myself, not to mention the boa guys, at a preview performance Wednesday before the Thursday opening.

You thought Hamilton forced you to plan your life many months in advance? In December, I was at the Paris Opera and struck up a conversation with some Brits, who exclaimed, "You're from New York? We have tickets for Bette Midler in May."

So if they're coming from the other side of the pond, you can be sure Philadelphians are beating a path to the Shubert. Midler is 71 and on the outside cusp of being able to maintain a Broadway schedule. Tuesday shows and some weekend performances will replace Midler with the also-compelling Donna Murphy -- contrary to wild rumors that 95-year-old Carol Channing, who originated the role, would come out of retirement and do occasional shows.

The producers have pursued a very curious publicity campaign: There hasn't been one.

Midler gave an interview last year when the project was announced. And since then? Lots of advertisements and placards directing you from the subway to the theater. With excitement running so high -- and, reportedly, a record-high $40 million in advance ticket sales -- the show has the luxury of audiences not knowing what to expect from Midler's Dolly.

Having begun on Broadway some 50 years ago singing "Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match, find me a find, catch me a catch" in Fiddler on the Roof, Midler is now playing the ultimate matchmaker, Dolly Levi, in 1885 New York City, manipulating one and all to her wishes, but revealing her soul in soliloquies to her deceased husband, talking about how tired she is of a hand-to-mouth life and her longing for stable domesticity. None of this lies even remotely outside Midler's well-seasoned talent.

What sets Midler apart from her predecessors -- at least at the Wednesday preview -- is her ability to render broad humor with consistently fresh, bull's-eye line readings that are also anchored in the character's psychology. But a less-expected part of the package is a benevolent warmth in place of the nervous energy of her youth and the randy-but-tough persona on which she made her name.

That said, she has always reveled in double and triple entendres and delivers them here with more precision than ever, the mischievous glint in her eye all but winking at the audience. Is this Midler being Dolly or just Midler being Midler? Who cares?

The audience seemed not to. At her surprise entrance -- you'll read no spoiler here -- the audience roar was deafening, only to be eclipsed by her Act I finale, "Before the Parade Passes By," and then again in Act II with the big production number, "Hello, Dolly."

Truth be told, there was some vocal struggle going on. From Middler's first entrance, her voice was a bit raspy. It cleared up some when she had a few minutes offstage, but the singing was marked by a wide, slow vibrato and compromised pitch at key moments. This isn't Midler being 71. It's any Broadway leading lady holding up over a long preview-performance week.

Midler has never been a dancer, but she moves credibly. And when she makes her final entrance with the biggest hat of the evening, the effect is something that only a star presence achieves.

Divas tend to be solo acts after a certain point. Her contemporaries Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli have mainly been concert performers for years. But Midler shows every sign of being a team player, standing back and turning off the wattage when it's somebody else's moment.

Not that anybody could truly steal focus from David Hyde Pierce, who plays the money-obsessed half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder from Yonkers who is in Dolly's sights for her second marriage. Rather than being an all-purpose curmudgeon, he's more like Scrooge, with a top hat, muttonchops, and an imperious manner.

It takes some getting used to. But when Pierce opens Act II with "Penny in My Pocket," a self-confessing song that was cut from the original production, the show is then officially half his. The character's psychological flip-flop near the end is far more believable than Walter Matthau's portrayal in the 1969 screen version. 

The Jerry Zaks-directed production makes no attempt to give this old-fashioned show a new-fashioned credibility. In contrast to the overly ornate Gay '90s milieu of the film version, this production is dated 1885 so that big hats and external glitter don't get in the way of the story. The show asks all significant characters to address the audience directly at various points, which is old-fashioned but makes sense in a production that pretends to be nothing but a Broadway show, as opposed to a slice of reality.

Sets only sketch the scenes. Costumes are candy-colored. Secondary characters -- with the substantial casting of Gavin Creel as Cornelius Hackl and Kate Baldwin as Irene Molloy -- make little pretense at true characterization. They're there to make you laugh as hard as possible. The chorus and dancing are full-tilt Broadway. So it's characteristic faster-and-louder Zaks, familiar from shows such as Sister Act.

If you go that route, does anybody do it better?

So it's a time-warp production, something that doesn't just give a storybook portrayal of an earlier time, but does so with time-warp theatrical techniques. And, yes, I hoped for more of the stuff of the Thornton Wilder play The Matchmaker from which Hello, Dolly! was drawn -- with widowed characters grasping for a second chance at happiness and pursuing the kind of inner emancipation that would explode in the late 1960s.

But this is Be Nice to Dolly Month. The 1964 original had a troubled gestation. "Before the Parade Passes By" was a relatively last-minute addition and made all the difference between the show being a hit and a middling success. It went through numerous titles. 

Any score with tunes as catchy as Jerry Herman's is going to attract nuisance lawsuits claiming the melodies were stolen, and this was no exception. The 1969 movie version was a high-budget botch that's watchable now only because miscast Streisand somehow knew how to hold everything together.

Channing's last tour grew so mannered and went to so many cities that some called it "The Door-to-Door Dolly." So this production not only stands to give Midler a late-career signature role, but perhaps a bit of rehabilitation for the entertainment machine that is Hello, Dolly!

Playing at Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., New York. Information: 212-239-6200 or www.shubert.nyc.

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