It's been a little more than two weeks since the legendary Carol Channing died, but her presence and spirit can unquestionably be felt at Hello, Dolly! at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. Channing originated the role of matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi on Broadway in 1964, winning a Tony for it that year. The show, which hasn't played in Los Angeles in decades, was revived on Broadway in 2017 for the first time in 20 years with Bette Midler playing the part of Dolly. On the revival's national tour, which opened last week, Broadway legend Betty Buckley takes over. Her performance, along with the rest of the cast, the chorus and the production, definitely encompass the essence of Channing and the original Broadway show.
The production follows Dolly, a widowed matchmaker who employs a plan to try to make herself a match for the curmudgeonly half-millionaire from Yonkers, Horace Vandergelder, in 1885 New York (the show's music is by Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart). Although the character of Dolly is timeless, as a widow, she's typically played by an older actress. Channing first played her at 43 and then again in two different revivals, one at age 57 and the other at 74. Midler was 72 when she first appeared in the recent revival. Barbra Streisand played Dolly in the movie version at the age of 27; however, Streisand recently told Variety that she doesn't think she was right for the role: "I said, 'Why don't you hire an older woman?' I thought I was totally miscast. I tried to get out of it."
The star of the current tour, Betty Buckley, at 71, is definitely in line with the original vision of the character being older, bringing back a more authentic feel to the show than the film was able to capture. Buckley may not be as big a household name as Streisand, Midler or Channing, but her résumé is just as impressive in the Broadway world; she won a Tony Award as Grizabella in Cats (she's the one who sings "Memory"). As Dolly, she hits the perfect balance of comedy, camp, sincerity and powerhouse vocals that the role requires.
Buckley is well supported by a talented ensemble: Lewis J. Stadlen plays the cranky but lovable Horace effortlessly. The female duo of Irene Molloy (Analisa Leaming) and Minnie Fay (Kristen Hahn), as well as the male duo of Cornelius (Nic Rouleau) and Barnaby (Jess LeProtto), have amazing chemistry and great comedic timing. Rouleau has an especially powerful voice, as does Leaming, who at many points sounds as angelic as a Disney princess. And LeProtto deserves major props for his incredible dancing.
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Even the chorus, which has a huge role in many of the show's biggest songs, shines brightly. This is in part due to their amazingly vibrant period costumes but also because their harmonies are always spot on and their dancing, especially in "The Waiters' Gallop" at the beginning of act two, really makes the show exciting. It's not often that the chorus gets a huge round of applause when the main cast isn't even onstage, but that's exactly what happened during "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" on opening night. It's worth mentioning that the sets are also pretty breathtaking: At one point a train comes on the stage!
In speaking to Variety, Streisand said about Hello, Dolly!, "I think it's so silly. It's so old-time musical." Her statement may be accurate but, at least in the current production, Dolly serves up old-time musical in the best, most nostalgic way possible. More recent shows such as Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen are definite game-changers that tackle important subjects and themes, but a more traditional show like Hello, Dolly! still has a valid place in the musical theater world. It may be "old-time," but its portrayal of a powerful older woman at the center of the story, in control of the narrative, is timeless.
Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through Sunday, Feb. 17; tickets and info at hollywoodpantages.com/hellodolly