Add Betty Buckley to the list of dynamic artists who have stepped into the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi and made it wholly her own. The Tony winner, who follows Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Donna Murphy into the latest incarnation of the Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart classic, is currently starring in Hello, Dolly!’s national tour through August 25.
I recently had the pleasure of catching Buckley's performance at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where her entrance was greeted with a rousing applause and her curtain call with a lengthy standing ovation—she continues at the D.C. venue through July 7 before moving on to Charlotte, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Boston.
For those who have admired Buckley's singular gifts as an actor throughout the decades, it's no surprise that she shines in Dolly's soliloquies to her late husband, yet just how much depth she brings to everyone's favorite matchmaker throughout the entire production is extraordinary.
Buckley imbues her Dolly with great heart, a true joy of life, and an appealing mischievousness. There are also moments of exceptional poignancy, where Buckley reveals the fragility beneath the bravado: This is a woman yearning for more, for pleasure she has denied herself, almost unconsciously, for years.
That the Sunset Boulevard and Cats star creates such a fully rounded woman without sacrificing the numerous comedic moments is a testament to her skills as an actor. She is at her funniest in the second act dinner scene with co-star Lewis Stadlen's Horace, where she serves unwanted salted beets and insists, “You go your way, and I'll go mine” while consistently pointing in the same direction. She and Stadlen, one of the great Broadway character actors, make a terrific pair. They have great chemistry, whether fighting or fawning; in fact, one of the loveliest moments of the production is Stadlen’s reprise of the title tune to a visibly moved Buckley.
As expected, Buckley impresses vocally. She has great fun with “I Put My Hand In” and “So Long Dearie,” but it's in “Before the Parade Passes By” where the Tony winner soars both vocally and emotionally, allowing her Dolly the chance to explore all that life has to offer. The speech that precedes the Herman classic is delivered with heartbreaking passion, and she builds “Parade” from a near whisper to an optimistic battle cry that reverberates throughout the theatre. And, of course, there is the title tune, where Buckley displays a palpable joy as she lets her Dolly fully “rejoin the human race.” Feel the room swaying, indeed.
What's so great about the Herman musical, directed by Tony winner Jerry Zaks, is how it allows each woman playing the part to shine in different ways. I thrilled to the performances of Midler, Peters, and Murphy, and Buckley is equally stellar. In fact, she made me hear certain portions of the script anew. Her masterful delivery of Dolly’s final speech was especially touching: “Yes, we’re all fools and we’re all in danger of destroying the world in our folly, but the surest way to keep us out of harm is to give us the four or five human pleasures that are our right in the world… and that takes a little money. The difference between a little money and no money at all is enormous… and can shatter the world! And the difference between a little money and an enormous amount of money is very slight, and that can shatter the world, too.”
Buckley is joined by a wonderful company. Standouts include the aforementioned Stadlen; Analisa Leaming and Kristen Hahn as, respectively, hat shop owner Irene Molloy and her assistant Minnie Fay, who display not only “Elegance” but great comic timing; and Nic Rouleau, whose rangy, powerful tenor dazzles on “It Only Takes a Moment” and “Put on Your Sunday Clothes”—the latter remains one of musical theatre’s greatest moments of pure bliss. And, the entire hat shop scene that follows “Sunday Clothes” is as perfectly crafted as it is performed. Buckley, Leaming, Hahn, Rouleau, and Sean Burns’ Barnaby deliver non-stop laughs while also managing to touch the heart in Herman’s tuneful “Dancing.”
After success on the London stage, numerous TV appearances, a number one film, and touring with Hello, Dolly! for a year, it’s more than time to bring the multitalented Buckley back to Broadway, especially if she promises to never go away again.