I was among legions of musical theater fans in 2017 who were, for reasons financial and logistical, very sad to be unable to get to New York to see Bette Midler take on a role she's always been perfect to play, the fast-talking marriage broker Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!
I was among many fans here in the Bay Area who was excited to see the show get added to SHN's season with Broadway legend Betty Buckley playing the lead. At 71, Buckley is two years younger than Midler, and has a Tony Award for originating the role of Grizabella in Cats on Broadway.
But unfortunately Buckley doesn't bring the same manic energy and joie de vivre that Midler brings to every stage appearance, and the result is a touring production that feels like a faded knockoff of the Broadway version — which is unfortunate for the rest of the cast who are, by and large, fantastic.
I wasn't alone in my assessment either — several friends whom I spoke to during after the show agreed that while she gave a perfectly passable performance, Buckley seemed low-energy and at times even wobbly in her heels. She had only a glimmer of the confidence, charisma, and zeal that the character demands, and she was therefore consistently outshined in scene after scene by her far more zesty and alive costars.
Buckley's gravitas and talent were best put to use in the Act 1 closing number, "Before the Parade Passes By," which is a song about trying to seize the last of what life has to offer before it's too late.
The show is also buoyed by a terrific dance ensemble, and hilarious supporting performances by Nick Rouleau as Cornelius, Jess LeProtto as Barnaby, and Kristen Hahn as Minnie Fay. As Cornelius's love interest Irene Molloy, Analisa Leaming is also wonderful.
Led by Rouleau, "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" is perhaps the most singularly memorable number in this production.
Veteran comedic actor Lewis J. Stadlen, who also starred in the national tour of The Producers, does stellar, goofy work as Horace Vandergelder.
Jerry Zaks' direction is brisk, and Warren Carlyle's choreography steals the show multiple times, but most notably with the famous, seemingly endless Act 2 number "The Waiters' Gallop." Scenic and costume designs by Santo Loquasto are also eye-popping-ly bold.
But it all comes back to Buckley, who seemed tired before the first act had even finished, and was mostly just going through the motions by the second half. Her voice, slightly hoarse, didn't help matters, and it was also hard to feel like there was much chemistry — or even a natural rhythm in the banter — between her and Stadlen.
Hello, Dolly! is an ensemble show at heart, and this is a marvelous ensemble. It's also a terrifically fun and nostalgic show that can't help but be a crowd pleaser despite any flaws. It just feels all the more annoying, though, not to have seen this production with the critical missing element that would have made it flawless — a Dolly who actually kept up with the parade.
'Hello, Dolly!' plays through March 17 at the Golden Gate Theater. Find tickets here.