Theatre Review – Hello, Dolly! (Jerry Zaks, Sam S. Shubert Theater, 17th March 2017)

Note: This is a review of a preview of Hello, Dolly! Out of respect for the performance I only published it after the opening night. 

The first time I saw Hello, Dolly! was when I was 27 and preparing for an amateur production of the great musical in England. I had been cast in the role of Cornelius Hackl, the employee of Horace Vandergelder who has just been promoted from impertinent fool to chief clerk. Popping out of the store room box in the opening scene is exciting for all Cornelius-portrayers the world over – for two reasons. Firstly, you get to deliver your hotly-anticipated opening line in the show and finally get a glimpse of the audience. Secondly, it means you can breathe properly for the first time since lights down – you’ve been trapped with your assistant Barnaby in a tiny box for the last 15 minutes as the rest of the characters are introduced to the audience at a seemingly excruciatingly slow pace.

I was relaying this information to the perfectly lovely gentleman who was stood next to me at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre on Friday night when I asked him “So are you involved in this production at all?”. “Why yes,” he responded, “I’m the director.”

That would be four-time Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks. [1]

Outside the theatre

His production of Hello, Dolly!, set to run at the Sam S. Shubert Theater from 20th April, is exactly what you would hope to see from a Broadway version of a musical that has been around for the last 50 years. It simply oozes quality and class.

The opening number “Call On Dolly” is full of bright and wonderful costumes with perfectly-precise movement from the ensemble. Warren Carlyle’s choreography at this point is nothing too complicated, but there’s a certain beauty in its simplicity – a matter counterbalanced with “The Waiters’ Gallop” in the second half.

The real star of the show, inevitably, is Bette Midler. As the titular character she is able to sweep from playful to heartbroken in the space of a song. Done correctly, it is a surprisingly nuanced character. She is larger than life when she’s entertaining guests, putting on a show for the cast and the audience in equal measures. However, when she is alone she reveals what drives her throughout the story – her lost love and former husband Ephram Levi. Midler may have the audience in stitches when she’s slowly eating a delicious chicken dinner, but they’re eating the palm of her hand when she’s speaking from her heart.

David Hyde Pierce is a great counterpoint for Midler as the angry shop owner and “half-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder. He is a seasoned Broadway star, winning a Tony Award in 2008 for his role in Curtains. It was great to finally see “Penny in my Pocket” restored and performed in front of the curtain at the start of the second act. It’s a song that’s great for someone like Pierce – full of characterisation and expression. It was cut from previous Broadway runs to shorten the second half.

Gavin Creel (Cornelius Hackl), Kate Baldwin (Irene Molloy), Taylor Trensch (Barnaby Tucker) and Beanie Feldstein (Minnie Fay) are all brilliant in their Horace-avoiding storyline, with “Elegance” a particular highlight in the second half. Creel’s rendition of “It Only Takes A Moment” with Baldwin was simply beautiful; a clear sign that musical director Andy Einhorn can get the best out of his performers.

The tickets for this production may well sell because Bette Midler is such a huge star and is massively popular on Broadway, with David Hyde Pierce also offering added interest. However, what audiences will find is a musical that is excellent across the board, from the back row of the ensemble to the lead star, with not a thread on a costume out of place.

To think that what I saw was supposed to be a preview, I only wish I could see it when it hits the full run.

It will be a smash.

[1] It was to my shame that I didn’t recognise Jerry Zaks. He was the perfect gentleman. By the time we had started chatting he had already noticed that we hadn’t got a Playbill and found an usher to retrieve a couple for us. What kind of director does that?! He seemed genuinely interested in whether we were enjoying the show, seeking us out at the end to garner our opinion before signing our programme. Great job sir and thank you for finding the time to talk to us.

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Theatre review – Waitress (Diane Paulus, American Repertory Theater, 18th March 2017)

As the star of the show, Jessie Mueller, leads the performance tonight for the final time, I thought it was a good time to write about how lucky I feel to have been able to catch one of her last appearances. 

It has been on Broadway for just under one year, but it felt completely fresh when we saw a matinee performance on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.

The first thing you notice as you walk through the doors at he Repertory is the smell of delicious baking pies. They have pies on sale; I have no idea how I resisted. 

The hallway is decked out like the inside of a café and bakery, with some themed merchandise available. Walking past this and into the theatre, you’re greeted with a stage set that starts to tell the story – pies up the wall providing an edge to the proscenium arch and curtains that would soon reveal a bustling and busy Joe’s Diner, where most of our story is set.

“It only takes a taste”


The story is based on the 2007 film of the same name. Jenna Hunterson (Mueller) is a waitress in  the aforementioned café somewhere in the deepest heart of southern USA. Every day she bakes a new flavour of fresh pie, much to the delight of the frequently-returning customers. She is in a dead-end relationship with aggressive musician Earl (William Popp) and feels her job isn’t going anywhere either. Instead, she gives herself fully to the sugar, butter and flour of her baking, daydreaming as she recalls happier times as a child when she baked with her mother. Her close friendship to two work colleagues – the positively sassy Becky (Charity Angél Dawson) and nervous Dawn (Caitlin Houlahan) – helps her retain her sanity. When she finds out she’s unexpectedly pregnant with Earl’s child, she has to take a visit to her doctor. However, her regular doctor has now retired and has been replaced with the young and handsome Dr Jim Pomatter (Drew Gehling), who appears as interested in Jenna as he is with her fantastic baking ability.

There were some hot tickets on Broadway the week we visited, with Inside Evan Hansen and a previewing Hello, Dolly! garnering the most interest outside the top tier musicals Like Hamilton, The Lion King and The Book of Mormon. It was, therefore, a shock to discover just how good this musical is, with a plot as deep as one of Jenna’s deep-dish blueberry pies.

“What a mess I’m making”


This is a musical that touches on failed life goals, unwanted pregnancies, extra-marital affairs and the acceptance of compromise. It’s all done, for the most part, with a touch of humour and grace that elevates the more sombre moments.

But it doesn’t just stop there. Most of the plot and delivery is taken or derived from the story of the original film, so the thing that really sets it apart from its origins is the fine music provided by Sara Barielles. The songs are suitably pitched somewhere between Americana and country, perfect for the setting. They are simply excellent songs. 

The comedy pairing of Dawn and Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald) supplies plenty of laughs and they are given two of the most memorable songs: “When He Sees Me” and “Never Gonna Let You Go”. Becky gets her chance to shine early in the second half with “I Didn’t Plan It”. But it is inevitably Jenna that gets the opportunity to wow the audiences with some of the best songs in a new musical this decade: show opener “What’s Inside?”, “What Baking Can Do” and “Everything Changes”.

Losing an iconic star of a musical always risks feeling like the end of a chapter, though with show writer Sara Bareilles ready to step into the role she created there is a sense of excitement over where it will go. Losing Mueller is a great loss and her infectious enthusiasm for the show has clearly affected the whole cast. With the male leads also being replaced the whole show will feel completely refreshed (Chris Diamantopoulous and Will Swenson take over as Dr. Pomatter and Earl respectively on 31st March).

Here’s hoping the changes to the cast will breathe yet more life into it and see its popularity grow.

 

Mayhem Film Festival – Preview

I’ll be heading down to the Mayhem Film Festival in Nottingham tonight to catch the first night of action.

First up will be The Duke St. Workshop feat. Laurence R. Harvey. Presented in conjunction with Kinoclubb, the performance will feature an electronic live score accompanying Harvey (star of The Human Centipede 2) as he reads two H. P. lovecraft short stories: ‘From Beyond’ and ‘The Hound’.

Next is the film ‘Raw‘, which received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival last week to rave reviews.

Finally, the UK premiere of Indonesian film ‘Headshot‘ will round off the proceedings.