The Divine Miss Dolly Levi

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 A couple of weeks ago, I sat between actor/comedian Jason Stuart and hunky up-and- coming Greek actor Orestes Sophocleus at The Theater at The Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, and saw the new film, “Freak Show,” which screened as part of the closing night gala of this year's Outfest.

In retrospect, the film that I remember in my head starred AnnaSophia Robb, as a girl unfortunately and dismissively called “Blah Blah Blah” by her inconsiderate, self- centered and insanely dramatic and spoiled rotten gay best friend, “Billy Bloom,” played by Alex Lawther. “Billy” has a mother, “Muv,” played by Bette Midler, who quickly dances off to rehab, and is barely seen again. She’s in just a few short scenes, so you only get a taste of what a really great Midler performance, at this point in her career, could be. The film is directed by Trudie Styler, wife to Sting, as if it were an updated John Hughes movie, without any of the charm and wit, with our protagonist predictably strutting across the football field at the end, only this time wearing feathers and sequins. Midler’s presence doesn’t really pay off, and I was left scratching my head, wondering what exactly she was doing there.

My love affair with Bette Midler began in the mid ‘70s, when one of my aunts gave me a copy of Bette’s “Live At Last” album for Christmas. Why she did that, I can’t even imagine - or maybe I can - and I devoured the album until it was destroyed. I cut school on Wednesday, November 7th so I could go to the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City, where I grew up, to see Bette’s film debut, “The Rose,” and I was mesmerized. I still have resentment towards Sally Field for that one. I mean, has there ever been a better screen debut? Well, ok, Barbra in “Funny Girl,” and Diana Ross in “Lady Sings The Blues,” but Bette is right up there. I saw “Divine Madness” shortly after that at the Majestic Theater, and haven’t missed a Midler concert since.
So, just a few days after “Freak Show,” I got on a plane and went to New York, to the Shubert Theater, to see Bette Midler in “Hello, Dolly!”

When I was a young boy, New York City had a Cinerama movie theater in Times Square, gigantic 70mm curved screen, and I will never forget seeing Barbra Streisand in “Hello, Dolly!” It’s one of those films that whenever I find it on television, I just stop what I’m doing and watch. The feeling of excitement in the theatre was palpable. Everyone was there to have a great time. So, when the lights went down and the orchestra began, the place erupted in applause, and I immediately started to cry. The brilliant score is so ingrained in my brain that I was flooded with joy and nostalgia. Midler’s entrance literally stopped the show. The show was “stopped” easily five or six times throughout the evening. The audience just can’t help itself.

Midler’s “Dolly” is...well, Midler-ish, with some Sophie Tucker and Mae West thrown in. She’s brassy, over-the-top, and a bit maniacal! She doesn’t take any shit! For those of you who, for whatever reason, don’t know the story, it’s pretty simple. “Dolly Levi” is a matchmaker, hired by “Horace Vandergelder” to find him a wife, but “Dolly” has decided that she is going to be the new “Mrs. Vandergelder.” The score is filled with iconic songs, including “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” the Act One finale, “Before The Parade Passes By,” which is one of the greatest songs ever written for a woman in the musical theatre,” and of course, the title number, “Hello, Dolly!” Streisand played the role at the height of her vocal power, and it’s quite stunning, but Midler, at 71, still sounds pretty great. You can’t beat “The Waiters’ Gallop,” the big dance number in Act Two. It’s thrilling. And when “Dolly” makes her grand entrance at the top of the stairs in The Harmonia Gardens, it’s as if time stops. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a more thunderous applause. Midler literally chews the scenery, especially during the dinner scene at The Harmonia Gardens, which is a very extended vaudeville bit that has everyone in hysterics, including some of the cast, and which proves that she really is a comic genius. She has some beautiful moments, as well. Her plaintive plea to her late husband, “Ephraim, let me go,” is gut-wrenching, and the final scene, with the famous line, “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It's not worth a thing unless it's spread around, encouraging young things to grow,” is perfect.
There are many standouts in the cast. Gavin Creel as “Cornelius Hackl,” has a gorgeous voice, Beanie Feldstein, as “Minnie Fay,” is adorable, Jennifer Simard, as “Ernestina,” comes out of nowhere and is a riot, and David Hyde Pierce, who seemed like an odd choice to me at first for the role of “Horace Vandergelder,” completely won me over.

The sets and costumes, by Santo Loquasto, are fantastic, and whatever little issues I had with Jerry Zaks’ direction are not even worth discussing, because it’s a magical evening, and you leave the theater loving life.

If you have thousands of dollars to spare, get yourself a ticket. I’m told Midler is in it until at least October.


Michael Vaccaro