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Bette Midler Lights Up Broadway in ‘Hello, Dolly!'

Absolutely no one will be surprised to learn that Bette Midler, the Divine Miss M, brings the house down singing the title song of “Hello, Dolly!” in the lush new revival of Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman’s classic musical, now on the boards at the Shubert Theatre.

The moment comes halfway through the second act, in an elaborate and precisely choreographed scene set at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, where Midler—as matchmaker extraordinaire Dolly Gallagher Levi—has been greeted by the staff as something of a returning goddess.

Dolly has been away from these old stomping grounds, and we can only imagine the chorus of dinner plate-balancing waiters has been numbed to boredomsince. But now she’s returned, and, as they’ll convince you in an enchanting, technicolor production number … it’s nice to have her back where she belongs.

Hearing Midler sing “Hello, Dolly!” is such a tingly experience that you eventually sit back down and wonder: Is this what it was like when Carol Channing debuted “Dolly!” on Broadway half a century ago? And, was Midler put on Earth to carry forth that legacy? It sure feels that way. This “Hello, Dolly!” is as blissful an escape as anyone could want.

Directed by Jerry Zaks and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, Broadway’s new “Dolly!” is a robust and full-bodied tribute to the original work of director and choreographer Gower Champion. Midler has an ideal sparring partner in David Hyde Pierce, as the well-known Yonkers “half a millionaire” whom the man-hunting Dolly is going to chase ... until he catches her.

One reason this production will be hailed as a triumph for Midler, back on Broadway for the first time since her run as super-agent Sue Mengers in 2013’s “I’ll Eat You Last,” is the vulnerability and subtle quiver she lends Ms. Levi, who underneath an exuberant exterior also has a certain melancholy.

Dolly is widowed and, though she’d never say so out loud, destitute, filling the void in her life as the queen of odd jobs, while simultaneously staving off loneliness: “I’m available for financial consultation, instruction in the guitar and mandolin, long distance hauling ... and varicose veins reduced!”

You can just hear Midler saying that bit out loud, can’t you? Her voice is grainier than it once was, and the extra texture heightens the effect of every punchline. Combine that with her trademark narrowing of the eyes and arch drawl, and you’ve got a “Dolly!” to reckon with.

For all of Dolly’s deceptions, Midler ensures that we believe she has a core of integrity and substance. (Theatergoers will note that multiple Tony winner Donna Murphy will play Dolly once a week starting in June.)

Pierce, as Horace Vandergelder, pulls out everything in his bag of tricks, waggling his whiskers in consternation, glowering in annoyance and popping his eyes in surprise. He needs not even a set behind him to land “Penny in My Pocket,” the second act curtain-raiser about how Horace came into his wealth.

Kate Baldwin brings all her heart to the role of Irene Molloy, a widow and milliner with a New York City shop—the actress played the same role at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in 2006. Gavin Creel is in his usual super form as the older of Horace’s two clerks; Taylor Trensch invests his role, as Creel’s partner in crime, with distinction and spunk.

The orchestra pit is set slightly inside the stage, leaving a small apron out front. The choreography takes advantage of the gap, sending the actors dancing expertly around the musicians.

Santo Loquasto’s set employs larger-than life elements, such as the staircase on which Dolly enters the restaurant, and vintage painted screen backdrops. Together, they help “Dolly” strike a sumptuous balance between realism and misty nostalgia. 

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

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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