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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Divine Miss M(urphy) in Hello! Dolly, and Bandstand


So last night I saw Hello Dolly! with the Divine Miss M and didn't have to donate a kidney! Of course the Divine Miss M in this case was Miss M(urphy). Some people in the audience muttered that they wanted to see Midler (I guess the sign to the left didn't tip them off?). But once Donna Murphy stepped off that trolley and started singing, I think the entire audience was like "Bette who?" Donna really sang the living daylights out of a role that's often associated with divas of a certain age with a limited vocal range. She can belt, she can interpolate high notes, she can sing while doing all sorts of physical comedy, in other words she was absolutely amazing! It was one of the most joyous nights in the theatre that I've ever experienced.

It's not really fair to compare the rest of the cast to how they were in March. That was early in previews and they were still figuring out what worked, what didn't, and the comic timing. What I can say though is how much they've grown over the past few months. Everyone is funnier, more extroverted, more of an ensemble. The award for Most Improved goes to David Hyde Pierce, whose timing in his lines is now actually hilarious, and his singing has become more confident as well.
"Penny in my Pocket" didn't seem like an end-of-intermission filler. Kate Baldwin has also made Irene Molloy a lot sexier. I also really noticed the antics of Jennifer Simard as Ernestina Money a lot more. Even performances that were excellent in previews (Gavin Creel's Cornelius, Taylor Trensch's Barnaby, Beanie Feldstein's Minnie) were that much funnier last night.



Minnie, Barnaby, Irene, Cornelius, photo @ Julieta Cervantes
Now Divine Miss M(urphy) vs. Divine Miss M(idler). I can't really say who is better -- it's apples and oranges. Bette's performance was more based on her old concert schticks, which the audience adored. I never saw her concerts, so some of the humor went past my head. Bette's comedy is more of the stand-up variety. For instance the little one-liners she would throw in during the "Hello Dolly!" production number were classic stand-up comedian tricks. Donna Murphy relies more on physical comedy/slapstick to get her laughs. She has a rather goofy, even girlish persona and a joie de vivre that was endearing. Donna's Dolly was also sexier. Murphy is such a beauty -- a real MILF (Matchmaker I'd Like to F...). Just one example: the famous eating scene became rather sexual with Murphy -- instead of just stuffing her face, Murphy had a multiple food orgasms. Her body shook and writhed with each dumpling. Also, I got more of a sense that this Dolly was really mentoring the young, stupid and in love crew (Cornelius, Barnaby, Minnie, etc.). It was more of an ensemble performance, perhaps because the audience wasn't so focused on seeing Bette.

The biggest difference between them was in vocal ability. Bette's voice is now showing its age, and so she conserves it for the big numbers, and there's no Broadway belting. This is not a bad thing -- in fact, the fragility of Midler's voice, its occasional raspiness, gives Dolly a more vulnerable sound. When Midler's Dolly says she's been struggling for 10 years, you believe her. Donna Murphy's on the other hand has a set of Pipes!!!  She could do things vocally that weren't possible for Bette. Added high notes, Ethel Merman-like belting. It was thrilling when she unleashed her voice -- THIS was a classic Broadway Voice with a capital V! Because her voice was so strong, Jerry Herman's score SOUNDED better. The end of "When the Parade Passes By" was thrilling with Donna's extra vocal flourish. Her vocal security also allowed her to do way more stage business while singing.

If you were to ask me which performance to see, I'll say: both interpretations are wonderful, but Donna's can be seen for less than three figures.

UPDATE: On July 2 I took my mom to see Hello Dolly! with the very same cast. My mom enjoyed the show a lot. She was especially taken by the dancing ensemble (Waiter's Gallop) was her favorite and Gavin/Kate/Taylor/Beanie as the four lovers, and especially Gavin and Taylor. She didn't really like the storyline of Dolly and Horace. "It doesn't resonate with me" she declared. She did like how both Dolly and Irene had to work for a living. But overall she loved the show. So ... definitely a good momsical choice.

I rarely stage door but this time I just wanted to express my appreciation towards the cast. They ALL came out and were very gracious and signing and pictures. Here's me with Donna Murphy, Beanie Feldstein, and Gavin Creel:

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The band, photo @ Jeremy Daniel
I also saw Bandstand last week. Bandstand manages to be one of those musicals with an excellent score and choreography but a book that's too unfocused to really be a great musical. Richard Oberacker's score both mimics the 1940's swing/big band style without sounding dated. "Love Will Come and Find Me Again" and "Welcome Home" I can imagine will be mined by Broadway divas long after Bandstand closes. The first is a classic torch song, the second a thrilling 11 o'clock number. Andy Blankenbuehler deservedly won a Tony for his choreography -- again, it's obviously based on 1940's style dance but also looks contemporary. So for the music and dancing, Bandstand is definitely worth seeing.

Osnes and Leavel, photo @ Jeremy Daniel
The cast is excellent -- most of them were obviously chosen for their ability to play their own musical instruments (this is one of those musicals where the singers are also the musicians), but they all exude a fresh charm. Corey Cott as Donny is given the thankless task of reciting some of the musical's most clich├ęd lines but he does so, can sing well, and isn't afraid to make Donny abrasive and unlikable. Laura Osnes (Julia) has an incredible set of pipes and the ability to take a rather loosely sketched, humorless character (she's a grieving widow who can write lyrics and sing, and that's about it) appealing. Beth Leavel has perhaps the best lines as Julia's mother and brings some much-needed comic relief to a story that's otherwise rather self-serious.

But the book can't decide what it wants to be -- a serious examination of the effects of PTSD among returning WWII vets, OR a good ol' Mickey-and-Judy-let's-put-on-a-show extravaganza OR a love story OR an indictment of the sleazy practices of the music business. It tries to do too much all at once and as a result makes little emotional impact. There's no follow-through with so many storylines. One minute the trombonist (Geoff Packard) has been kicked out of his house by his wife for erratic behavior, but in the second act his storyline is dropped completely and he's just in the band, playing happily. Other stories are telegraphed so obviously (like the one with Julia's late husband and Donny) that when the Big Reveal finally happens we're already impatient and ready to move on. Despite the wonderful voices, music, and choreography, Bandstand is definitely a missed opportunity.

But there are the songs. Isn't this gorgeous?


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