I’ll just come right out and say it: I prefer Donna Murphy over Bette Midler in “Hello, Dolly!” — and I suspect that many other theater insiders who have seen both divas go on as Dolly Gallagher Levi also feel the same way.
Months before the current Broadway revival of Jerry Herman’s smash musical comedy began previews, it was revealed that Donna Murphy (who won Tony Awards in the 1990s for “Passion” and “The King and I” and acclaim while headlining the 2003 revival of “Wonderful Town”) would serve as Midler’s standby, playing Dolly at select performances.
Murphy gave her first performance as Dolly on June 13 (just two days after Midler won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical), and she just took over the role for two weeks from June 27 to July 9). Looking ahead, in addition to every Tuesday night, Murphy will play Dolly during one-week stretches in early September and November, plus a handful of other scattered nights.
I do not mean to knock Midler’s magnificent performance. As I noted in my original review from back in April, Midler as Dolly is “a match in musical comedy heaven.” With her broad and brassy comic personality and star presence, Midler is the ideal person to inherit the sacred mantle of Dolly from Carol Channing, who starred in the original 1964 production and proceeded to play the role for decades.
But on both occasions that I have thus far seen Midler as Dolly (most recently a month ago), the Divine Miss M (now 71 years old) showed signs of struggling with the role’s significant physical and vocal demands, which frequently brought the merriment to an awkward pause. This feeling of exhaustion is openly and brilliantly acknowledged by having Midler (at the end of the title song) lean against the side of the set and pant for breath.
Murphy, on the other hand, fires from all cylinders and never lets up, bursting with vitality and comic ingenuity. It is certainly reminiscent of the larger-than-life energy she displayed in “Wonderful Town” (which I saw three or four times back in the day). Murphy is also in full voice. Her powerhouse singing takes the production numbers up by more than just a notch.
Murphy also affects how the audience at large responds to the show. With Midler in charge, it is all about her. Even if her energy is flagging, the audience is nevertheless rapt with her, and the production somewhat flags when she is not present. With Murphy, it feels like an ensemble show, and the wonderful contributions of her co-stars (including David Hyde Pierce, Gavin Creel, Kate Baldwin, Taylor Trensch, Beanie Feldstein and Jennifer Simard) are more fully acknowledged and integrated into the experience.
Midler is expected to exit the show in early January, and it currently unknown whether the revival will close at that time or if someone else will take over as Dolly. I am all for passing the baton to Murphy full-time. Many articles came out last week about how the box office supposedly took a nose-dive during Murphy’s first week in the role (dropping from a head-spinning $2,305,481 to $936,602), but that was still a very strong gross in its own right.
In any event, people should not shy away from this lavish, lovingly old-fashioned, euphoric revival simply because they cannot score tickets to see it with Midler — or because the tickets have gotten so expensive. Affordable tickets to see the show with Murphy can be easily obtained — at least for now.