Hello Bette, Goodbye Glenn, and Love is for Sale

Bette Midler in Hello Dolly! Photo @ Julia Cervantes
This was a big Broadway blitz for me. On Friday evening, I attended City Center's Encores! presentation of Cole Porter's  The New Yorker's.  A day later it was time for Divine Miss M (aka Bette Midler) and the highly publicized revival of Hello Dolly! Finally I watched Glenn Close get ready for her closeup in the revival of her star vehicle, Sunset Boulevard.

Hello Dolly! is the show you'll want to watch if you think lots of laughs, a few catchy songs, pretty sets, and an old-fashioned star vehicle for a diva is your idea of the perfect night at the theater. Jerry Herman's score still bubbles along with tunes that I'm sure are being hummed from here to Yonkers and beyond by all who were in the audience tonight. Director Jerry Zaks seemed determined to recapture as much of the original Carol Channing production as possible. The sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto are bright and cheery. Based on some sleuthing (aka Google Images) the sets look almost identical to the original Oliver Smith designs. The choreography was officially credited to Warren Carlyle but closely followed the original Broadway production, or so I was told by someone who saw the OBC. This was an exercise in nostalgia, so it makes sense that the production is so similar to the original. The enthusiasm of the audience was overwhelming -- parts of Waiter's Gallop and the title song were almost drowned out by cheering. It was deserved though -- Waiter's Gallop is one of the most charming dance numbers I've ever seen on Broadway.

Bette Midler as Dolly Levi lives up to the hype and then some. She's funny, she can SING (and dance a little!), and she exudes a warmth and energy that is infectious. She seemingly ad-libs so many comedy bits -- her few lines about the length and repetitiveness of the "Hello Dolly" production number had the audience in stitches, and she's amazing at physical comedy too -- watch what she does with her turkey-and-beets meal in Act 2. She does preserve her voice for the big numbers -- she is 71 after all. But when she lets out that big generous voice in "Before the Parade Passes By" or "Hello Dolly" the audience goes giddy with glee. She's so sincere of a performer that the just-bordering-on-corny monologues to her late husband come across as heartfelt. Very often star diva vehicles end up being self-indulgent vanity pieces. Not here. The Divine Miss M completely loses herself into the role of the salt-of-the-earth matchmaker.

Baldwin, Midler, Feldstein and Trensch, photo @ Sara Krulwich

Her supporting cast is generally excellent. Gavin Creel (Cornelius) and Kate Baldwin (Irene Molloy) almost steal the show right from under Bette's blond curls. Their chemistry is so strong that their love story actually becomes the heart of the show. Creel is handsome, ardent, funny. Baldwin is beautiful with a lovely, wistful voice. When the curtain goes down you want these two to live happily ever after. Creel's "It Only Takes a Moment" and Baldwin's "Ribbon Down My Back" are going to be hard-to-beat Tony submissions. Taylor Trensch (Barnaby) and Beanie Feldstein (Minnie) were also a charming pair of young lovers. Will Burton (Ambrose) and Melanie Moore (Ermengarde) started off strong but faded more and more as the show progressed as Creel and Baldwin stole the spotlight.

The only sour spot of the night (and I'm sure many will disagree with me) is David Hyde Pierce's Horace. I just didn't believe in Dolly and Horace -- Hyde Pierce's portrayal was so priggish that I actually envision his half-million dollars being needed for a divorce settlement. Also, DHP really can't sing at all, which makes the inclusion of "Penny in My Pocket" a puzzlement. The chemistry between Midler and Hyde Pierce was not particularly warm. As a result, the Dolly/Horace romance unfortunately became the least interesting storyline arc of the night. I do think Hyde-Pierce is a talented actor, but he just isn't well integrated into the production. Hopefully this will change as right now it's still in previews.

But that's a small quibble when one thinks of the overall joy of the show. Are parts of the show dated? Yes. Does the marriage of Dolly and Horace come across as a mutual love of the cash register than an affair of the heart? Yes. But who cares? Hello Dolly! is corny, it's funny, it's an American musical in the best sense of the word. And Bette Midler is probably the best Dolly any of us are going to see in our lifetimes.

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Glenn Close at Sunset Boulevard, photo @ Sara Krulwich
A day later I was in the cavernous Palace Theatre for a very different kind of star vehicle. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard is receiving a limited run with Glenn Close reprising her closeup as Norma Desmond. First of all, let me just interject that if you want an unflinching, well-acted drama of aging Hollywood divas, there is nothing better than FX's Feud: Bette and Joan. Sunset Boulevard fans, if you're not watching Feud, you should be.

Having said that, Sunset Boulevard worked almost despite itself. I'll just get the negatives out of the way first. Number one: Glenn Close can't sing. No beating around the bush here -- even with a 40-member orchestra supporting her in the most loving way possible there was no hiding her thin, quavery voice. Number two: the numbers for Joe (a dapper Michael Xavier) and Betty (a pert Siobhan Dillon) are third-rate ALW muzak. And if you consider what "first rate" ALW-music is like ... well ... Number three: the production is a rather industrial, impersonal looking set of platforms and staircases that doesn't really evoke the morbid splendor of Norma Desmond's Hollywood mansion.

Ready for her closeup, photo @ Sara Krulwich
Having said that, I was deeply moved by the performance. Glenn Close can't sing, but she can act up a storm, and she made Norma Desmond a real person rather than a grotesque caricature. She has help from the musical book, which sticks closely to the Billy Wilder movie. But Close doesn't try to recreate Gloria Swanson's iconic portrayal. Close's Norma is more filled with obvious self-doubt. Her artistic choices elevated the material beyond camp into something moving and sad. I knew from the moment I saw her cradling the dead chimpanzee that Close had the ability to make the absurd believable. In her two big numbers "A Perfect Year" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" she knew exactly how to turn her face towards the light, to show the audience what it meant to be a star. Even her shot voice ended up being strangely effective -- you sort of wondered how much Close was hanging onto stardom by taking on such a challenge as a septuagenerian. It's like Midler and Dolly -- the Close/Norma pairing was an great fusion of artist and role and I feel privileged to have seen both portrayals in one weekend.

The other star of the evening was the large orchestra that was at the back of the stage. This full-sized orchestra not only filled the huge Palace Theatre with a lush, gloomy sound, but also supported the voices in the best way possible. They filled out the vocal lines when Close's voice was failing and boosted her up when she was able to rise vocally to the occasion. Fred Johanson wasn't able to make Max quite as sinister as Erich von Stroheim in the movie but he acted the role very well. Michael Xavier also didn't have William Holden's world-weary, cynical, washed up persona, but he was glibly handsome and thus believable as a screenwriter-turned-rent-boy. Only Paul Schoeffler as Cecil B. DeMille was a real disappointment -- his scenes with Norma had no affection, no sense that this director still cared about Norma.

Here is a snippet of the loving curtain calls this afternoon. I unfortunately didn't tape Close's heartfelt speech about how HIV affected the theatre community.

Strallen and Tutu, photo @ Caitlin Ochs
The Encores! presentation of Cole Porter's The New Yorkers has none of the star power of Hello Dolly! or Sunset Boulevard but it was a fun fabulous evening. The "storyline" (and I use that term loosely) is about various romantic entanglements that happen when society gals meet bootleggers. This musical was first presented in 1930 and has Cole Porter's trademark combination of cynical lyrics and bubbly-as-champagne melodies. The most well-known piece from the work is probably "Love For Sale," which was banned from the airwaves for its frank ode to the world's oldest profession. And Encores! decided to interpolate "Night and Day" and "You've Got That Thing" into the festivities. But really, the joy was hearing many of the racy Porter songs together with the joke-a-minute book by Herbert Fields. Some of the jokes are dated but a great deal of them are not. The bizarre Act One ending song "Wood" just added to the silliness.

The production and cast were lovely. The set was an art deco platform that looks straight out of an Astaire/Rogers movie, the costumes evoked the Jazz Age, and Chris Bailey's choreography wasn't memorable but it got the job done -- lots of tap numbers for the talented cast. Scarlett Strallen as Alice Wentworth had a light, bell-like soprano voice and a sweet, winning manner. She can also dance pretty well. Tam Mutu as bootlegger Al Spanish is a rare breed -- a musical theater hunk who can also really sing. Their lovely duet "Where Have You Been" was a highlight. Arnie Burton was a scene-stealer as Feet (short for Effete) McGeegan, and "Let's Not Talk About Love" stopped the show. Kevin Chamberlain played the Jimmy Durante role with a good natured irreverence. Another standout was Ruth Williamson as Alice's mother Gloria. Gloria sang my personal favorite song of the evening, "Physician" with lyrics like "He simply loved my larynx/And went wild about my pharynx/But he never said he loved me." Only disappointment was Cyrille Aimée who sang the anthem "Love For Sale." She simply didn't really catch one's attention. But overall it was a lovely evening of time travel froth -- you were brought back to Prohibition-era New York where lyrics mention drinking so much that everyone realistically would be dead from alcohol poisoning or cirrhosis.


  1. thanx for 'The New Yorkers' trax. "Physician" was my personal favorite song of the evening, as well.

  2. I agree with your thoughts about The New Yorkers. I saw Sunday evening's final performance and loved the chemistry between Strallen and Mutu. I did not care for the Act 1 closer, Wood, nor did I like Aimee's rendition of Love for Sale. I thought the reprise in Act 2 was so much better.

    I also saw Hello Dolly Thursday evening and had the grandest time. I totally agree with you about Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin -- I thought they were wonderful.

    Thanks for sharing your perspectives.

    1. I also look forward to Donna Murphy taking over Tuesdays in June. It should be a fun run.

  3. Gertrude Lawrence in her heyday made a wonderful recording of "The Physician" that is available on YouTube. It was originally in the show "Nymph Errant."


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