Dallas — Wednesday night at Fair Park Music Hall brought Broadway and film star Betty Buckley back to the stage in her home region of North Texas for the title role in the current touring production of Hello, Dolly!, presented by Dallas Summer Musicals.
Although better known in the broader popular culture for film and television roles ranging from parts in the horror-thriller Carrie to the sitcom Eight is Enough, Buckley ranks among the all-time greats of Broadway. Born in Big Spring, Texas, and reared in Fort Worth, she landed the brief but indelible role of Martha Jefferson (“He Plays the Violin”) in 1776 on the day after she arrived in New York from Texas at the age of 22. Since then, her career has included one Tony for best actress as well as numerous additional Tony, Grammy, and Emmy nominations, and major roles in productions such as Sunset Boulevard and Pippin. But she earned her page in the history of the lyric stage as Grizabella in the first American production of Cats, after which she and that character’s show-stopping song “Memory” will be forever intertwined.
This production of Hello, Dolly! (music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Michael Stewart) marks Buckley’s first go-round with the iconic title role of that classic. The on-Broadway version from which the tour derives, directed by Jerry Zaks, was built around Bette Midler and opened to a rare level of critical acclaim for a revival of a classic show in 2017. Buckley has appeared in the role in various cities around the country since the tour launched in the fall of 2018.
And Buckley brings the full power of her onstage charisma to the role—that ability to seduce and make love to an audience with her eyes, her smile, and her magnificently powerful voice. At 72, the famously limber and athletic Buckley is not likely to repeat feats such as her renowned split-second leap from a low crouch to full height while singing at full voice in Cats—but she exuded, Wednesday night, a raw energy and, more importantly, the perfect timing that feeds on and responds to the audience, even in a gigantic auditorium.
Buckley made the quiet monologue that leads into “Before the Parade Passes By” feel as if she was talking one-on-one to every member of the audience; this in turn made the gradual segue into that grand ensuing choral scene all the more thrilling. In a completely different direction, she demonstrated more of her perfect comic timing in the final portion of the restaurant scene, in a stunning and hilarious pantomime gastronomic burlesque of enthusiastically downing a meal, making anyone watching wonder what she would do next.
Based on a play by Thornton Wilder (best known to audiences nowadays as the author of Our Town), Hello, Dolly! was one of a number of spectacular diva vehicles created for the likes of Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, and Barbra Streisand in the 1960s, including the musicals Mame, Funny Girl, and Gypsy. Among those, Hello, Dolly! provided a tuneful and superbly crafted piece of nostalgic Americana for a country, in 1965, on the verge of cultural revolution.
Aside from the obvious escapism of this idealized version of 19th-century America (and the old-fashioned thrills of the score), one might well ask what Hello, Dolly! holds for an audience in 2019. The answer is that there’s more here than just the tale of a loveable but deceitful female con artist determined to marry a wealthy man. At heart, this is a study of two widows determined to find some degree of security, a little adventure, and, if possible, a little love, in a society that offers nothing but obstacles for an independent woman. Ultimately and intriguingly, Hello, Dolly! questions the validity of the concept of true love as the only real love, in favor of pragmatic long term respect and acceptance. Even the most romantic number in the show, “It Only Takes a Moment,” reminds us that ecstatic love is a momentary thing. And Dolly’s final conquest of her intended husband is no less valid in that it’s at least partly a practical, mutually beneficial business affair.
As in many Broadway classics, there’s also a strong undercurrent of ethnicity and assimilation here: the merchant’s surname Vandergelder strongly suggests pre-Revolutionary Dutch colonial roots, while Dolly’s late first husband’s name, Ephraim Levi, hints at Jewish new immigration. And there’s that quick passing line in which the young Cornelius Hackl assumes that Irene Molloy is Catholic, and offers to convert from his presumed Protestantism to win her favor.
As the secondary love interest duo, Analisa Leaming as Irene and Nic Rouleau as Cornelius offered presence and voice to match Buckley Wednesday night. Tall and gorgeous, Leaming owns a soprano tone of rare beauty that can slide effortlessly into a powerful Broadway fortissimo; Rouleau likewise possesses an attractive tenor that can belt out Broadway-style at appropriate moments. His delivery of the solo that opens “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” had my foot unconsciously tapping, even before that song blossoms into a full ensemble piece.
Lewis J. Stadlen delivered the role of Horace Vandergelder, the “half-a-millionaire” object of Dolly’s schemes, with appropriate gruffness, right up to the final moments in which he reveals his heart of gold. The revival of Horace’s mostly sung monologue “Penny in My Pocket” provided a humorously condescending bit of financial advice (and ode to capitalism). Dropped from the score before the first opening night half a century ago, but restored for the 2017 Broadway production, “Penny in My Pocket” adds a delightfully Wilder-esque touch.
This production of Hello, Dolly! leans heavily on visual and vaudevillian comedy, a reasonably sound (if not particularly subtle) approach for a large auditorium such as Fair Park Music Hall. In keeping with this strategy, the roles of Ermengarde, Minnie Fay, and Ernestina were put forward as noisy, befuddled, and sometimes shrieking caricatures, played, however, with full energy by Morgan Kirner, Kristen Hahn, and Jessica Sheridan, respectively. The one real dancer among the principal roles, Sean Burns, played Cornelius’s sidekick Barnaby Tucker with a bounding energy (and wide-eyed earnestness) that frequently grabbed the spotlight. In contrast, Colin LeMoine performed the artistic Ambrose Kemper as lean, long-haired, and generally calm.
Sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto successfully created a storybook version of the American past, enlivened with bright colors and (as is traditional for Hello, Dolly!) lots of red for the restaurant scene. The road-show adaptation of Warren Carlyle’s choreography efficiently used the whole touring ensemble, while breaking into more complex movement utilizing the corps of skilled dancers at key moments. Dolly’s grand entrance to the title tune, in a red dress down a long stairway, was, as it should be, thrilling and cheer-inducing.
The orchestra, combining a small touring ensemble and some local musicians, gave this gloriously melodic and momentous score its worth; conductor Robert Billig skillfully interacted with the flexibly timed action and dialogue onstage. Although an occasional chunk of text was lost in this cavernous hall (particularly in the opening chorus), it’s interesting to observe that Buckley herself got every word of her complex part across.
This touring production will move on to other cities after closing in Dallas on July 28. Buckley is scheduled to withdraw from the cast in September, and Carolee Carmello will be in the title role when the show arrives in Fort Worth at Bass Performance Hall for a short run in January. For now, this run at Fair Park provides North Texas fans of Buckley their one chance to see one of the all-time great stars of Broadway perform the title role in this classic.