Friday, November 02, 2018

Still Goin' Strong: With Betty Buckley in the Lead Role, 'Hello, Dolly!' is Looking, Sounding Swell -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Hello, Dolly!
National tour starring Betty Buckley
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 17

To those not well versed in Broadway history--yet old enough to recall late-1970s television--Betty Buckley is probably best-known for playing Abby, the stepmom in Eight is Enough for the last four of its five seasons (following the death of Diana Hyland, the original mom in the series).

But Buckley, now 71, has been a genuine Broadway musical star well before and after her most notable of many TV credits.

In 1969, playing Martha Jefferson, she was part of the original Broadway cast of 1776 (incidentally alongside William Daniels and Ken Howard, who would also become significant TV stars).

And in 1983--two years after Eight is Enough ended--Buckley played Grizabella in the original Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash hit, Cats. Notably belting out the show's best-known song, "Memory," she earned a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

She was also Tony nominated for the short-lived 1997 musical, Triumph of Love.

Photo credit on all: Julieta Cervantes
So while she is following in some rather remarkable footsteps--not only historically in the titular role of Hello, Dolly! (Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey, Barbra Streisand in the film) but touring in a production that saw Bette Midler and then Bernadette Peters star on Broadway--it's not like Buckley doesn't bring a tremendous pedigree.

And true chops.

Though I grew up knowing the movie rather well, I never saw a stage version of Hello, Dolly! until a 2010 production by Evanston's Light Opera Works (now known as Music Theater Works), which I found solid but not quite sublime.

My guess is that Bette Midler would've been a delight to see on Broadway, likely bringing cheeky comedic glee that Buckley doesn't. Midler won a Tony Award for the role as the show itself earned Best Revival of a Musical.

But Buckley is a pretty strong name to take the show on the road, and strictly at face value--without comparison to Midler, Streisand or anyone else--she's terrific.

The recent Broadway run saw David Hyde Pierce initially--and Victor Garber subsequently--playing Horace Vandergelder, the Yonkers merchant seeking Dolly Levi's matchmaking assistance.

Here too, I can imagine both doing something more unique than Lewis J. Stadlen, who hews pretty close to the Walter Matthau archetype from the film.

But like Buckley, Stadlen's an old pro; his Broadway database ( entry is quite robust and I had seen him play Max Bialystock on an early Producers tour.

So while I didn't see anything particularly revisionist in the production directed by Jerry Zaks, and neither of the two leads brought noted personalities to the fore as others may have, a vibrantly staged, wonderfully sung and delightfully performed Hello, Dolly! is still a great joy to behold.

With its late turn-of-the-20th century storyline taken from Thornton Wilder's play The Matchmaker--itself derived from earlier works--which I saw in 2016 at Chicago's Goodman Theatre and found myself sorely missing the music, Hello, Dolly! features one of the best musical theater scores ever written.

Premiering on Broadway in 1964 to huge success, the show's music and lyrics were written by Jerry Herman, now 87 and also responsible for Mame and La Cage aux Folles.

Even the Overture is a sheer delight, and within a half-hour or so come a lively ensemble number, the Dolly-sung "I Put My Hand In"--which Buckley handles delectably--Stradlen and a bunch of men doing "It Takes a Woman," and the absolutely mirthful, "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," led by Horace's employees Cornelius (Nic Rouleau, a Book of Mormon leading man vet) and Barnaby (Jess LeProtto, who proves to be a remarkable dancer).

Beyond the music, which continues to be great throughout--"Dancing," "Before the Parade Passes By," "Elegance," the title song, "It Only Takes a Moment," "So Long Dearie" are a few more of the many highlights--the production values are superb, supposedly replicating those of the Broadway revival.

The scenery and especially the costumes created by Santo Loquasto are fantastic, and the choreography by Warren Carlyle--with the Playbill substantially noting original director/choreographer Gower Champion--is frequently blissful.

This is especially true when Dolly is welcomed to the posh Harmonium Gardens restaurant by several singing & dancing waiters led by Rudolph (Wally Dunn).

Also meriting mention are Analisa Leaming and Kristen Hahn as New York hat shop owner Irene Molloy and her employee Minnie Fay, who catch the attention of Cornelius and Barnaby.

I realize I'm not really telling the story in a clear chronology, but either you already know it, you'll discover it soon enough or you don't really care.

Essentially Dolly is a widowed matchmaker hired by the curmudgeonly Horace, and via various machinations all the key players make their way from Yonkers to New York where shenanigans and deceptions continue.

The story is fun, but it's really the music that makes Hello, Dolly! sensational.

And with fine stars and a wonderfully large ensemble, it's rendered about as well as one could want, at least for a touring production sans the Divine Miss M.

At the resplendent Oriental Theater, Hello, Dolly! plays eight times per week (until Nov. 17), which should be more than enough to catch the fantastic Betty Buckley.

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