Hello, Donna! Tony Winner Donna Murphy Helps ‘Hello, Dolly!' Shine in Bette Midler's Absence

From the day the Broadway revival of "Hello, Dolly!" was first announced, it's been pretty hard to separate the title of Jerry Herman's beloved musical from the name of its new star: Bette Midler.

After all, the Divine Miss M's return to Broadway (in her first leading stage musical role ever, no less) is a huge draw — one that has helped the production break box office records and pick up four Tony awards, with trophies for Midler and the show itself.

But "Hello, Dolly!" is much more than Midler — something only made clearer when seeing the show with Donna Murphy, Midler's alternate who steps into the role of Dolly Levi every Tuesday night (and on other select performances when Midler is unavailable, like during a recent pre-scheduled two-week vacation).

Sure, the ghost of Midler still hangs in the air when you first enter the Shubert Theatre. One need only look up on the marquee where Midler's name sits above the title of the show itself in equal-size font. But it doesn't linger long thanks to Murphy, who has the audience eating out of her hand within minutes of her entrance.

So what's the secret to Murphy's success? Is it the vulnerability Murphy gives the matchmaker and widow, now desperate to find security in her life after years of going it alone? Is it the undeniable comedic chemistry she has with costar David Hyde Pierce, as Horace Vandergelder — a "half a millionaire" from Yonkers she sets out to marry? Or is it the emotion wrapped in her pristine voice, shining so brightly on tunes like the Act I showstopper "Before the Parade Passes By."

All that works, but at Sunday's press viewing it was the joyful enthusiasm Murphy gave Dolly in nearly every scene that struck a chord. While she clearly has something to lose, this wasn't a Dolly who was going to let life get the best of her — no matter what her circumstances. And bopping around the stage with near childlike glee and determination, it was impossible not to be swept up in the wake of Dolly's addicting energy.

Murphy appeared to have that effect on the rest of the cast too. The entire company — including Kate Baldwin, Tony winner Gavin Creel, Taylor Trensch, and the hilarious Beanie Feldstein — fired on all cylinders, elevating Michael Stewart's book (based on the play "The Matchmaker" by Thornton Wilder) and Jerry Herman's classic 1964 score. Jokes landed better than ever; the score sounded fuller; Warren Carlyle's choreography felt fresh and new. The audience responded as if they were at a rock concert — making it one of the most exciting and satisfying experiences I've had in a Broadway theater in years. 

None of this is to say that Midler drags "Hello, Dolly!" down in any way. Those advertisements lauding Midler's turn in the show as a "see it or regret it for the rest of your life" experience are still accurate. But with the addition of Murphy, they just should be changed — now that there are two must-see, once-in-a-lifetime performances from two very different stars walking down those stairs at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant.

“Hello, Dolly!” at the Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St. Tickets: $59-$229, on sale through Jan. 14, 2018. Call 212-239-6200.

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