The Dolly Levi of Donna Murphy
If you have not made it a priority to do so, I urge any fan of musical theatre to make an effort to see Ms. Donna Murphy in Hello, Dolly! as soon as you can. What I am speaking of is a priority assignment that you must follow through on. I am not aware of how long Ms. Murphy will be staying with the show and if she will continue her tenure during the Bernadette Peters months that will replace Bette Midler’s iconic run, but I insist, if you want to see this show performed with verve, heart, and a bravura star turn that is so layered with honesty and magic, you need to find one of the dates that Murphy is on and go. Just GO!
I say all of this with no insult to Ms. Midler or Ms. Peters, two performers that I absolutely adore. It is not that I believe any less of these great ladies of the stage, it’s simply a matter of fact that the two-time-Tony-winning Donna Murphy plays this role as a human being and never gets caught in the trappings of caricature often associated with this role. Her Dolly is indeed a “wonderful woman” who aches a little, loves a lot, and who robustly embraces life and all that it has to offer.
How does Murphy approach the role? I found pieces of it reminded me of the best of Shirley Booth, Gwen Verdon, and Andrea Martin, while remaining distinctly a quirky creation that we have grown to expect from Donna Murphy. This Dolly is full of spunk who occasionally lowers her veil of a smile to reveal a vulnerability and a sorrow that she shares only with the audience. Her monologues to her late-husband Ephraim are never corny or overdone. They are a gentle conversation between a lonely widow and her dead husband, a gentle plea for him to let her go and usher her back to the lights of 14th Street again. When she assumes her positon at the front of the throng to sing “Before the Parade Passes By,” Murphy’s Dolly begins to pulse, then throb with joy, finally exploding with the declaration of that Jerry Herman lyrical gem “For I’ve got a goal again! I’ve got a drive again. I’m gonna feel my heart coming alive again!” and with it, she claims our hearts and our devotion.
Murphy finds room for plenty of humor, but never at the expense of creating a truthful portrayal of this matchmaker who must make several romantic interludes happen before she can claim her prize, Horace Vandergelder, the half-a-millionaire on whom she has set her sights. Sure, she charms. Sure, she cajoles. Sure, she has her moments of frantic craziness, farcical foreplay that sets us up to be most astonished when she melts into her human moments of desperation and hope. Never has an actress run the gamut of Dolly Levi’s possibilities quite like this actress has. Do not miss her making that entrance down the staircase at Harmonia Gardens. You will kick yourself if you do. I may kick you myself.
The rest of the show sans Midler played just as beautifully. David Hyde Pierce is a far funnier Horace Vandergelder than I had expected. He has a perfect level of crustiness that keeps him fussy without being inaccessible. We enjoy his Horace even if he is a jerk. Kate Baldwin is still singing the finest rendition of “Ribbons Down My Back” ever, and her Irene Molloy is the go-to for understated loveliness and subtle scene-stealing. Gavin Creel may be the handsomest Cornelius Hackl ever to grace a production of Hello, Dolly!, but damn it if he isn’t the most charming one either. His Tony Award is well-earned and I particularly want to mention that this is the most at-ease and immersed I have ever seen Creel in a role. He gets better and better with each show. The supporting cast is all fine, though I do wish director Jerry Zaks had taken a bit of a lighter touch with the shtick where sidekicks Barnaby and Minnie are concerned, but the performers Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein are both talented and game. They will continue to wow us in roles to come and I’m quite interested to see their next projects (we know Trensch is headed for Dear Evan Hansen).
One final point and I’ll end my written love fest for Hello, Dolly! The production number “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” is so perfectly designed, choreographed, and executed, that I sobbed. Tears of joy are not something I have experienced in the theatre for a real long time; I often wonder if my heart has become numb to the modern musical. But as the song began to build and the band took over with its driving, urgent orchestrations, and a handsomely clad chorus took to the stage to promenade around the orchestra pit in a careful kaleidoscope of color, I could feel my hearting coming alive again. For someone who loves feeling that feeling, a vibrating ignition of the soul, this was a special night of the theatre for me. That Donna Murphy was a big part of that sensation is a testament to the continued chameleon-like conjuring that she has made the trademark of her career.