Last Tuesday night at HELLO, DOLLY! Beanie Feldstein made the audience adore Minnie Fay; David Hyde Pierce and Kate Baldwin got entrance applause which they’ve earned from their past roles and would earn again that night; Nathan Madden was an exemplary stand-in for Gavin Creel; Jennifer Simard got gales of laughter as Ernestina; the waiters galloped –
— all right, all right, you don’t want to know anything about those people. If it’s Tuesday, it must be Donna.
So how is she?
I’ve been a Donna Murphy fan since I saw her play a community theater member (and depressed feminist) in BIRDS OF PARADISE, for which I named her Best Featured Actress in a Musical for the 1987-88 season.
Since then, I’ve made sure not to miss Murphy in each of her six off-Broadway shows, five Broadway musicals and her three stints at Encores! How fortunate I was to also see her stunning Vera Simpson in the Huntington Theatre’s PAL JOEY in 1992 and her haunting Kristin in the McCarter Theatre’s MISS JULIE in 1993.
Having seen Murphy so many times, I had a good idea of what her Dolly Gallagher Levi would be like when I entered the Shubert on Tuesday.
And, boy was I wrong.
Take it from someone who’s seen 13 Dollys from Channing to Midler, with everyone from Molly Picon to Betsy Hocchauser (in a community theater production) and, of course Streisand, too: Murphy is unlike any Dolly I’ve ever encountered — and that’s meant as a compliment.
Is there a Donna Murphy Fan Club? I’m not applying to join (well, maybe I will), but there seemed to be one in attendance on Tuesday. She got titanic entrance applause that suggested more than a thousand members were on hand.
Maybe they were just rank-and-filers who were saying “Look, we know you have an unenviable and thankless job. We’ve subbed from time to time too and know how hard it is. We’re on your side.”
I’d prefer to assume that the adulation came from musical theater aficionados who respect the two-time Tony-winner as a star.
Whatever the case, Murphy literally responded to the crowd with two curt and embarrassed waves of her hand as if to say “You’re here because you want to see the show in its fine production — and you know Tuesdays and Bette’s vacations are the only times you can get in.”
One she opened her mouth, though, we saw the differences between her and the other Dollys. You’ll see it, too: Murphy has a side-of-the-mouth delivery that shows she’s taking us and everyone else onstage into her confidence. As she storms around the stage in her high-button shoes, she conveys that she’s divulging a secret to you and you alone. Tenderness is there, too, as we see someone who was starting to get a touch of agoraphobia but is now combatting it, beating it away as if she had in one hand an old trombone and in the other an old baton.
Putting it another way: Murphy sings in her Act One finale “I’m ready to move out in front.” By then she already has – AND she does the best damn horse whinny I’ve heard in years.
Murphy’s a quirkier Dolly – perhaps even more quirky than Channing’s — but in a way that shows us that this is really who this lady is. If she’s not quite content with her life, she is totally comfortable with her style and panache. “My husband was a pleasure-loving man,” Dolly says, and Murphy shows us the character she’s created learned quite a bit from him.
Her performance is awash with subtext. When she tells Ambrose that all she has in her purse “are large bills, fives and sevens,” she gives a look as if to say “I won’t blame you if you don’t believe that.” When she ruminates on matchmaking a man who comes up to a woman’s ear, she underlines it with an eye-ball extending look of “This’ll be a tough one.” Later she adds a conspiratorial wink to heaven when insisting that she assists “the Lord above.”
When talking to her late husband Ephraim, Murphy adopts a brave smile when admitting that any union with Horace Vandergelder “won’t be a marriage in the sense that we had.” You may even see her ever-so-s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y sniff back a tear that was about to emerge.
After she suggests to Vandergelder that he meet Ernestina Money, she punctuates the surname with a quick right hand on her hip that says “Now how about that for a name?” Her reminiscences to Ambrose about her days at the Harmonia Gardens put her into a genuine reverie, but she rallies to put a supportive hand on Ambrose’s shoulder to show that she’ll do what she can to get Vandergelder to approve him as Ermengarde’s husband.
After Irene asks Vandergelder if he knows Cornelius Hackl – and Vandergelder minimizes who he is — Murphy’s delivery of “He’s one of THE Hackls” carries with it a brass-tacks look of “Stop pretending you don’t know that.” Soon after, Cornelius, hiding away in the wardrobe, sneezes and Murphy’s “God bless you” also carries with it a message of “God help us!”
The best part of Murphy’s performance? This Dolly is not just a woman who “meddles” but one who wants to help bring more happiness into the world. She gives those whom she meets the impression that all they need to do is spend enough time together and they’ll become friends. Here’s the kicker, though: after she makes everyone else happy does she then go to work to become happy herself.
And then there’s that title number, the one that even Beatles-obsessed teens knew in 1964. Dolly’s been away from the Harmonia Gardens for 10 years so she wants to let each waiter know that she remembers his name (and, in Stanley’s case, his former weight). Her voice sounds as if it’s coming through a silver-plated wah-wah mute, and she’s not afraid to lift up that famous red dress and show a substantial amount of leg when proclaiming “Look at the old girl now, fellas!”
Well, how can we not love her? Nevertheless, Vandergelder resists. As soon as he sees that red dress and headdress, he snarls “Where did you get that get-up?” Murphy almost falls over at the insensitive crack while showing us she’s thinking “What’s the use of trying to rehabilitate this clown?” And yet, how much time does she need to rally? It only takes a moment and she’s emotionally back where she belongs.
Let’s not forget the eating scene. Murphy makes it not unlike the one in the ROOM SERVICE film where the Marx Brothers gorge after not having eaten for days. Watch her take a gravy boat out for a spin.
And while we’re on the subject of food: Murphy and Midler aren’t just apples and oranges; they’re delicious apples and Sumo Mandarin oranges. Each is well worth seeing, and we’re lucky to have both in town.
From the early days of 1964 through the end of December, 1970, many musical theater aficionados made it their business to see all seven official Dollys — Channing, Rogers, Raye, Grable, Bailey, Diller and Merman – while the truly devout also caught standbys Osterwald and Carpenter. Given that this 2017 production has worked hard to have the look of the original, today’s musical theater mavens should repeat history and see the two miraculous Dollys.