Who couldn’t use a hug during these vertiginous times? From the moment she appears onstage – tucked aboard a trolley, her face coyly concealed behind a newspaper – Bette Midler supplies that embrace. Odds are, you have never seen a performer so patently delighted to give it her all. And it’s all here, in spades: the sass, the wit, the warmth.
Every aspect of director Jerry Zaks’ labor-of-love revival has been polished to a high gloss. The precision choir enunciates like a well-oiled machine, and the waiters pull off challenging ballet moves while juggling trays and swooping down banisters (original choreography by Gower Champion). Shifting enticingly and effectively throughout are Santo Loquasto’s luscious vintage-inspired sets and costumes. Still you’ll be hard pressed to take your eyes off Dolly, who, in the restaurant scene that morphs into a courtroom, rarely takes her eyes off her dinner plate. (The scene is sexier that Tom Jones, and she’s eating solo.) This is a woman who, having endured penury, knows that living high on the hog can prove a precarious perch.
Her strategy for upward mobility is none too appetizing. David Hyde Pierce plays miserly merchant Horace Vandergelder, Dolly’s willy-nilly intended, as a peevish fussbudget, to the point that the match promises misery. Pierce sings adequately but appears emotively limited to one shtick move: puffing up his cheeks like a cheesed-off chipmunk (think Yosemite Sam). Is it too much to ask that Dolly’s intended fall more into the curmudgeon-with-an-untapped-heart-of-gold category?
All the secondary characters are stellar. As Mrs. Malloy, a demimondaine milliner, Kate Baldwin gets to kick off her good-girl traces (the curse of an angelic face) and play an incipient libertine. Gavin Creel is likewise perfect as her impulsive suitor, a middle-aged shopboy let loose on the town, and Beanie Feldman makes an auspicious Broadway debut as squeaky, excitable hat-shop underling Minnie Fay.
The award for astounding cameo, though, goes to Jennifer Simard (the singing nun from Disaster). Playing nightmare date Ernestina – a ploy of Dolly’s to send Horace reeling into her arms – Simard effortlessly hits what sounds like a high Z.
All in all, the show scores an A-plus-plus. Score tickets while you can.