It’s coronation time: Bette Midler is the new queen of Broadway. It really is a cultural moment when Miss M steps up top the plate to make her starring debut in a Broadway musical and knocks it out of the park. Hello, Dolly! is a song-and-dance warhorse, over half a century old, that Midler twists a little, stirs a little, shapes a little, molds a little and –voila! – it’s a musical comedy dream for a new generation to discover.
Midler is in peak form as Dolly Gallagher Levi, the pushy matchmaker and widow from Yonkers, New York who decides that the turn of the 20th Century is the perfect time to find the right man for herself. Carol Channing debuted the role on stage in 1964, Barbra Streisand played her onscreen in 1969, and now Midler plays Dolly for the ages. It’s a knockout performance that will be talked about for years. Audiences explode with applause when Midler, 71, descends the red staircase at the elegant Harmonia Gardens restaurant to sing the title song that puts Dolly back in the game. “Wow, wow, wow, fellas/look at the old girl now, fellas.” As if you could turn away. As if you’d want to. If you’re lucky enough to score a ticket (they’re scarce and Hamilton hot), you’ll be seeing something historic. Wow, wow, wow, indeed.
I could go on about this smashing, kick-ass revival. The still-bright potency of Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics, the pulsating energy of Jerry Zak’s direction, the dazzle of Santo Loquasto’s sets and costumes, the high spirits of Warren Carlyle’s dances that echo Gower Champion’s original choreography. And the actors! Midler’s last Broadway event, 2013’s I’ll Eat You Last, about the infamously wicked agent Sue Mengers, was a one-woman show with no music. Now she’s out there with a 23-piece orchestra and a big cast. It takes a skilled actor to hold the stage with Midler. Gavin Creel does himself proud as Cornelius Hackl, Dolly’s young protégé in dance and romance. Kate Baldwin is loveliness incarnate as his lady love. And David Hyde Pierce, as Horace Vandergelder, the grumpy, penny-pinching half-a-millionaire that Dolly intends to snag and reform, is an ornery hoot.
But this is Midler’s show, an exhilarating gift from a comic force of nature who has long dared audiences at her concerts and Vegas stints to “kiss my brass.” Never content to give audiences only what they expect, she keeps springing surprises. Midler is first and foremost an actress, a creative artist who refuses to slide by on surface flash. Check out her Oscar-nominated breakthrough as a Janis Joplin-like burnout in The Rose, or her Emmy-nominated turn as Mama Rose in Gypsy, or her Grammy-winning hit “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” What Midler does with a song is a master class in acting. Download her soulful version of “Superstar,” off Midler’s1972 debut CD, and you’ll hear her transform that Leon Russell song into a haunting one-act play.
Midler brings all her gifts to bear in Hello, Dolly! – showgirl, chanteuse, clown and heartbreaker. With warmth, delicacy and feeling, she finds the core of a character who is nowhere near as confident as the showstopper she’s playing. Alone on stage, singing “Before the Parade Passes By” (the showss power ballad), Midler reveals a woman taking what may be her last shot at rejoining the human race. There’s a rasp in her voice and a plaintive longing (“I need a goal again/I need a drive again”) when she goes for a note and a life they may be just out of reach. Technical proficiency has always taken a backseat to emotional urgency in Midler’s work. She doesn’t just sing the role of Dolly Levi, she finds her secret heart. The role is built for laughs, but Midler is the first Dolly who also earns our tears. In doing so, she turns a bright, shiny bauble of a musical into something funny, touching, and vital that reminds us of what a true star is. It’s not for nothing that we call Miss M divine.