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Thursday, January 31, 2019

F3Stage Review: Hello, Betty! The legendary Buckley delights as Dolly

Film Flam Flummox

With Broadway managing to achieve a certain sense of contemporary zeitgeist hipness--and, thus, mainstream media attention--in recent years with a stream of younger-appealing successes such as Dear Evan Hansen, Mean Girls, the soon-to-transfer Off-Broadway cult sensation Be More Chill, and a certain little slice of American political (and, now, theatrical) history known as Hamilton, the knee-jerk impulse, particularly for the new audiences these shows rope in, is to reject the shows of yesteryear as being simple, square, and antiquated. But certain shows become enduring classics for a reason, and that one usually does indeed boil down to a simplicity that's been lost over time: that of the laser-focused aim to provide theatergoers with pure, unadulterated joy. And that the current national tour of Hello, Dolly!, now running at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, definitely serves up by the gallon.

The touring version of Jerry Zaks's 2017 Tony-winning Broadway revival doesn't boast what was the main drawing card for that production's 16-month run: Bette Midler, and her equally Big Deal replacement, Bernadette Peters. This isn't to say that the tour skimps out on star power, however, for credit goes to the producers for snagging another legendary leading lady for the road, Betty Buckley. One need not be familiar with her long list of credits and accolades to know, from her casually grand entrance from behind a newspaper, one is in the presence of an all-caps STAR. In essaying the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi, resourceful, resilient, all-purpose Jill of All Trades widow in 19th century New York, Buckley is in fine voice tackling Jerry Herman's timeless tunes, but more crucially she exudes the boundless charisma and charm that is essential for the character and the show as a whole. Dolly's main hustle as a matchmaker entails meddling and manipulation, such as the convoluted machinations she employs to get a trio of financially strapped young paramours, artist Ambrose (Garett Hawe) and store clerks Cornelius (Nic Rouleau) and Barnaby (Jess LeProtto), to fully win over their respective true loves, frequently crying Ermengarde (Morgan Kirner), widowed hat store owner Irene (Analisa Leaming), and her assistant Minnie (Kristen Hahn). While the farcical shenanigans that ensue in Michael Stewart's book are preposterous by design, to lend even the most basic dramatic credibility to the trust they place in Dolly, it takes a presence of undeniable, irresistibly welcoming warmth such as Buckley's.

And that warmth is all the more critical to the entire piece, for Dolly's plotting is also for a major selfish concern on top of those selfless ones. Intertwined in and her ultimate end to all of these means is her ultimate master plan to marry Horace Vandergelder (Lewis J. Stadlen), the grumpy old widower who owns the feed and hay shop at which Cornelius and Barnaby work, not to mention Ermengarde's uncle and the person Dolly is supposedly matching with Irene. As mentioned, Buckley's effortlessly ingratiating presence and demeanor never keeps Dolly's best-intentioned heart of gold out of mind even through all the antics, but not for nothing did Buckley win a Tony Award by wringing torrents of tears through a single song as Grizabella in the original Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. Through the most minimal and understated inflections and rhythms of her line readings, Buckley brings a lifetime of emotional dimension to Dolly, making her motivations not only more relatable but lending them a certain gravitas. When Dolly occasionally addresses the spirit of her dearly departed husband Ephraim, Buckley is able to turn on a dime what is sometimes used as a comic device into deep dive character moments that are sincerely affecting and sell the story's most universal of themes: that of one's eternal hunger and need, even with many years behind and the world ready to count one out, to simply feel and live.

Buckley is able to just as easily shift in the other direction, and make no mistake, for all the heartfelt sentiment and poignant emotion infused in the piece, it is overall just a fun time--and a major reason for that is Zaks completely embracing the yesteryear style of the piece. Santo Loquasto's opulent scenic and costume design is a throwback to go-for-broke showmanship of Broadway's heyday, their vibrant colors matching the infectiously sunny disposition of the entire production and the boundless energy of all of the actors on stage. That last statement most definitely includes the large ensemble of ensemble players, particularly the dancers who impressively execute William Carlyle's elaborate, intricate, and even physics-challenging--as in extended "The Waiters' Gallop" set piece that features props in various, precarious positions of balance--that, in tandem with Herman's ever-hummable score, drive the show's numerous showstopping numbers.

No number is more showstopping than, of course, the title one. While the core cast members are all very impressive, in fine voice, comic timing, and having crackling chemistry with each other, when Buckley makes the most definitive of diva entrances, resplendent in the iconic Dolly red dress and feathered headpiece, it's just as much a tribute to its star as it is the character. For all the terrific work she does throughout the show--beautifully singing the songs, acting the hell out of the comedy and the drama, and bringing the character to vivid life--the manner in which she can instantly hold a housefull audience in a cavernous venue in her helpless thrall by simply strutting down a staircase while flashing a tractor beam of a smile is the true testament to what a timeless talent and treasure she is. Hello, Betty.

Betty Buckley as Dolly Gallagher Levi
(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Hello, Dolly! is now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in a limited engagement through Sunday, February 17; the First National Tour then continues on to other cities throughout the year.

Buy the Hello, Dolly! 2017 Revival Broadway Cast album CD here.
Buy the Hello, Dolly! Original Broadway Cast album CD here.
Buy the Hello, Dolly! 1967 Broadway Cast album CD here.
Buy the Hello, Dolly! 1994 Revival Broadway Cast album CD here.

(Special thanks to Hollywood Pantages Theatre)

Original Hello, Dolly! star Carol Channing's
Hollywood Walk of Fame star, right outside the
Pantages Theatre, on opening night
(photo by Michael Dequina)

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