Today happens to be Thanksgiving (#govegan), so it’s fitting to dedicate this Theatre Thursday to a show I’m incredibly thankful (and surprised!) that I got to see: “Hello, Dolly” starring Bette Midler. Everything you’ve heard about this lavish, hilarious production is probably true. Bette has the audience in the palm of her hand and is the biggest ham I’ve ever seen, to everyone’s delight. It’s pure beautiful joy up on that stage, with every actor looking like they’re having the time of their lives – especially Bette. Well Bette tied with the guy in the right mezzanine box who shouted ‘YASS QUEEEEEN!’ every time Bette did something funny, which was a lot. He was definitely having the time of his life and he definitely helped the rest of us to laugh the entire time, but it was mostly due to Bette, a true star having a ball up on that stage.
Everyone in that theatre was buzzing with excitement. I mean 99% of the audience members bought their tickets a year ago and have been counting the days. I didn’t brag to anyone near me about how I paid hundreds less than they did and only had to count the hours but I was tempted. I also refrained from bragging to the people around me that unlike them I was not swimming in old lady perfume, but unfortunately my prize for showing that restraint was NOT to be free from the stench of said old lady perfume. Par for the course when seeing a show like “Hello, Dolly”.
A show, by the way, that…I didn’t really know. I knew it was an old classic from 1964 written by Jerry Herman (boyoyoy), originally starring Carol Channing in her most renowned role. I of course knew the famous songs “Before the Parade Passes By” and “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, as well as the title song, but that’s about it for the score. I knew Bette would be freaking hilarious and amazing but I knew that I mainly wanted to see it because Gavin Creel was in it. This is all I knew. Nothing about the plot or the other characters. I love seeing shows without knowing too much but it’s hard to do that for shows that have been around this long! Luckily, there’s not much to it. There’s a cute little plot with cute little side plots but none of it really matters; it’s all set dressing for the central performance. Bette could have improvised all of her lines with no regard to the story and the audience would have eaten it up with the same amount of enjoyment. It’s written for a star giving a star turn and that’s what she’s doing.
But what is it really about? Dolly Levi is a famous ‘meddler’ in New York and its environs. Whether matchmaking or instructing in literally every pastime one could think of, she meddles. She’s the original New York yenta and talking faster than anyone who has come before. Her current matchmaking assignment is for the widowered Horace Vandergelder of Yonkers, a famous ‘half-millionaire’ played by David Hyde Pierce in ridiculous farmer accent matched with too long facial hair straight out of the Civil War. He’s a disheveled dorky mess, yet despite Dolly’s promise to set him up with the lovely hat-making widow Irene Molloy (the glorious Kate Baldwin), she confides to us that she’s going to marry him herself. Maybe it’s just for the half million, but it doesn’t really matter. Nothing really matters it’s all just incredibly fun.
Like her first big song says, Dolly really does have her hand in every matter. On the same day that Dolly is going to take Horace to meet Irene Molloy in her adorable hat shop in the city, she convinces Horace’s niece Ermengarde (ermagerd) and her boyfriend who Horace disapproves of to enter a polka competition in NYC at a fancy restaurant where Horace and his match – whether it ends up being Irene or another socialite named Ernestina Money (omg) – will be eating dinner at that night because what fancy restaurant doesn’t have a polka contest and what grumpy old man wouldn’t be swayed to approve of a young man by watching him dance polka? Like I said, plot is nonsense and it doesn’t matter. Even better, Horace’s two clerks in his Yonkers Hay & Feed shop(pe), Cornelius and Barnaby (erma with these names), decide that this is the day, the one day, where they won’t work and will instead close the store while the boss is gone and will go have a grand old time in New York City for the first time in their lives. There’s a lot going on in this one day! Cornelius, the head clerk (Head Boy), is played with utter glee by my fave Gavin Creel. I had really high expectations for him since a) he’s the best and b) he won the Tony over my pick, Lucas Steele in “The Great Comet”. While I think I would have still voted for Lucas, Gavin proved he was completely worthy of the win with his excellent and beyond delightful performance.
There are so many ‘best parts’ of this show, and my first best part ever is when Cornelius and Barnaby embark upon their journey into the city. They board the train with all the other fancy people going into the city (only fancy people go to New York City!) along with Dolly, Ermagerd, and her floppy haired artist boyfriend who looks like he’s late for a regional production of “Hair”. These five venture cityward with socialites and rich people and how-de-do’s (I don’t know) to “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, which most people know from “Wall-E” and that’s such a great movie that I don’t even mind and I also don’t mind because when you are watching this flawless scene, nothing can bother you at all, not that you have to pee or that you’re breathing in terrible perfume or even that a jackwagon is checking their phone in the row in front of you (which are the house seats, ps, so 9/10 chance that they know someone involved with the production what a jackwagon). This musical number is pure joy, with bright, colorful, elaborate costumes, flawless choreography, the moving trains I LOVE TRAINS. Everything comes together so exhilaratingly perfectly. I had a huge smile on my face the entire time I watched this show but during this number is when it got so big it hurt.
And that pain only increased with another first act piece of perfection that I grinned like an idiot during. For some reason Cornelius and Barnaby end up at Irene Molloy’s hat shop(pe) right before Horace and Dolly do. Of course they do, it’s like a great big farce and everything has to be comical and ‘coincidental’ (hey that’s ‘joincidence’ with a ‘c’) and even though it’s contrived, this scene is the embodiment of the 100 emoji, even more than Gina Linnetti is. First of all, Kate Baldwin’s Irene sings the beautiful song “Ribbons Down My Back” in her beautiful ginger voice to her young kind of goofy shop girl Minnie Fay, who is played by the amazing Beanie Feldstein (I know her real name is even better than her ridic show name). Both of these ladies are incredible, Kate for her lovely voice and overall loveliness, Beanie for her unmatched hilarity and also for having the most Jewish name in all of NYC and all of history too. Then Cornelius and Barnaby enter the shoppe pretending to be rich men, which is hilarious in itself, but then they see Horace and Dolly approaching the shoppe and all hell breaks loose. C & B have to hide in the closets, under tables, in plain sight wearing ornate hats, to avoid Horace catching them playing hooky from work. This scene is a masterpiece of comic timing and direction and was worth the ticket price in itself. In a show that is pure hilarity and pure fun, this scene was like the most hilarious and fun. This is when I was like ‘okay it was worth paying so much for this show’ (unclear if the people who paid premium prices (or scalper prices in the thousands jfc!) thought the same but that’s not my concern). This is also when I decided I want to be bff with Beanie.
After Horace angrily leaves the shoppe, not knowing that his clerks were there but knowing that some men were hiding in there (don’t ask it doesn’t matter just enjoy it), Dolly teaches Cornelius and Barnaby how to dance with the ladies so that they can take them out to dinner that evening in the fancypants Harmonia Gardens, where Horace and Dolly will be dining with Horace’s match – not Irene, since he’s mad about the whole men hiding thing (and because Dolly hinted (falsely) that Irene killed her husband (remember Dolly is trying to keep Horace to herself so she has to taint all his potential matches)) but probably the outlandish clown Ernestina Money. Why the boys would agree to go to a dinner that a) they can’t afford to pay for and b) their boss will be at too, the boss they’ve been trying to hide from all day so he doesn’t fire them, is…unclear, and yes, their vision has been clouded by love for these girls they just met so maybe that can explain it and no, it doesn’t matter. Just smile and enjoy them learning to dance and going from tripping over their feet to gliding across the floor in literally 15 seconds.
As everyone goes to watch the 14th Street Parade (yes there’s a big parade happening it doesn’t matter), Dolly decides that she needs to move on and says goodbye to the spirit of her late husband Ephraim whom she talks to quite often. She does this by bringing the house down in “Before the Parade Passes By”, and even though she has to put the hamming on pause for her one serious moment, Bette shines just as brightly as she does in the other comic moments. She’s incredible, she really is, and she’s giving every moment her all when she could easily not work as hard and still delight the audience. She could phone it in and people would still shout brava every minute (which it seemed like they did). That she’s so devoted to making this role and this show the best they could be makes it all even better.
As act one ends, so too does any interest in the subplots and other characters. Act two is about revering Dolly(/Bette) and letting her go absolutely wild with comic madness. Everyone is heading to the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, and when Dolly enters, in the famous red gown with red feather headdress, the entire restaurant staff (the huge ensemble) sings “Hello, Dolly!” in appreciation of her long-awaited return to the place and to the NYC scene in general, but really it’s just so everyone can thank Bette for coming back to Broadway in such a classic (and PERFECT FOR HER) role and so everyone can rejoice in watching her dazzle and delight. The audience is enraptured during this, as it’s mostly a meta way to thank Bette for thrilling us with her presence. It doesn’t matter that waitstaff would never be so ecstatic to see an old patron return – actually, most of the waitstaff who worked during Dolly’s prime wouldn’t still be there – but nothing in the plot matters. It’s all about Bette just hamming it up and being admired.
The hamming it up continues. At one table, Horace is on a short-lived, excruciatingly painful date with Ernestina Money – played by the hilarious Jennifer Simard in clownish makeup and a dress resembling a chicken costume – who mainly shrieks and whines in a terrible voice. Simard is a freaking hilarious performer (see: “Disaster!”) but this is a waste of a role for her. It’s so unnecessary to have an over-the-top side character like this when the lead character is an over-the-top comic genius. But remember none of it really matters. Horace is flustered with all his potential matches failing and when he hails a waiter, Barnaby does so at the same time, and they both drop their wallets and accidentally pick up the others. HA HA FARCE. Barnaby and Cornelius are excited to be able to pay for dinner for their dates (whom they now like, love or something whatever) and Horace, of course, is in despair at having barely a dollar.
Then the polka competition begins.
I know, this show. ermagerd.
Speaking of, Horace’s niece Ermagerd and her artist boy dance among the crowd and because Ermagerd is played by Melanie Moore of “So You Think You Can Dance” fame, you know they are going to win, and they do, and because polka is the measuring stick by which all potential husbands of heiresses are measured, they think Horace will give his blessing (side note where are her parents) and she shrieks again but this time in happiness instead of annoying sadness (Ermengarde’s entire role, besides polka dancing, is to shriek and wail in sadness it gets old but the old biddies loved it). But then Horace sees her and the guy and his clerks and Irene and Dolly and he’s like what’s happening and you’re like I don’t really know BUT, look at Dolly –
This whole time, this whole Harmonia Gardens scene, Dolly is eating an entire turkey plus sides. The entire f-ing platter, and it looks like real food. Despite all the ‘plot’ happening with the others, the audience is fully fixated on watching Bette devour what could feed a family of four today (thanksgiving remember so thankful hashtag blessed) and ROARING with laughter. Yes she eats the whole thing, down to every last drop in the gravy boat, but she makes it even funnier with her mannerisms, chewing on the bones like a squirrel or something, what chews on bones. Anyway the meal is made with some kind of rapidly disintegrating business like cotton candy, so she’s not really eating an entire turkey, but it looks real and the audience mainly thinks it’s real and Bette is SELLING it and it’s HYSTERICAL.
When she’s done and almost in a food coma, Horace sees the others and everything erupts into chaos and NATURALLY, they all go to NIGHT COURT. Dolly convinces the judge to let the boys go (what was their crime…) because they are just fools in love and Cornelius sings a lovely song about how he loves Irene and it’s all well and good but like they’re in Night Court I was cracking up. Unforch, the judge doesn’t let Horace go like he does the others, and makes Horace pay damages. Dolly says to Horace that he should marry her and Horace is like what is this day, no.
The next day at the Hay & Feed store (so romantic), Cornelius and Irene, Barnaby and Minnie, and Ermagerd and Hairboy are all happy and coupled and it’s unclear why exactly they’re all in the Hay & Feed store but whatever, NOTHING MATTERS. Then Dolly shows up again I don’t know why because Horace had turned her down the night before but now he pleads with her to marry him because she would make his boring humdrum life so much better (first order of business: trim your beard) and she’s like DAMN RIGHT and her late husband Ephraim (how she always refers to him it’s great) sends her a sign and so she says yes and they decide to get married so now there are four couples (OG four weddings & a funeral) but none of this matters because Bette Midler just dazzled you for more than two hours and it was splendid and we liked it and we loved it. the end.
I gave you some pretty stellar ticket-acquiring advice back in the beginning; I expect you to try now.
Scott Rudin is the producer, and he's a big ole jerk. For all his productions, there is no late seating like for other shows. If you arrive a second after the show starts, you're shit out of luck until intermission. So harsh okay but that's not why he's a jerk; I actually like that rule because nothing ruins a show like latecomers. Except phones okay and then latecomers is second. No he's a jerk because he makes the bagcheckers at the door confiscate water bottles. It doesn't matter if they're empty; they claim it's because of the 'noise they make' if you crinkle them but then a) they would care that the biddies were still eating cellophane wrapped candies like their lives depended on it, wouldn't they? and b) they wouldn't care if the water was in hard reusable bottles now would they? GET YOUR STORY STRAIGHT, RUDIN. Luckily I knew about this from past shows and I had an empty plastic bottle (I'm traveling I'm sorrryyyyy) on top of my bag to distract the doorman who confiscated it from the FULL PLASTIC BOTTLE AT THE BOTTOM OF MY BAG HEYOOOO.
Unfortunately, my new BFF Beanie didn't come out, but it was a matinee on a two-show day so I actually didn't expect anyone to come out (unlike the rest of the crowd who SIGHED with SUCH SADNESS when the security guard announced that Bette wouldn't be coming out like come on people did you REALLY think Bette would stagedoor? Even disregarding that it was a matinee? What are you, new??). Luckily, Melanie Moore and Kate Baldwin both came out and signed. I want to say that both took selfies too but I didn't even ask Kate because I was so distracted by her gingery goodness that I just took a picture of her instead of with her. No ensemble members signed which was a shame if they were assuming that no one cared because I CARE, but not a shame if they just didn't want to stagedoor.