For female musical-theater stars of a certain age, slipping into Dolly Gallagher Levi’s bedazzled red gown and matching red feather headdress seems a mandate of destiny, the way putting on a satin sash and diamond tiara is for a queen. So it now justly occurs that the “Hello, Dolly!” scepter passes to Betty Buckley, Broadway’s original Grizabella the Glamour Cat, in the endearing touring version of director Jerry Zaks’s Tony-winning revival.
It is a warm and rosy Dolly that Buckley presents to us in the Kennedy Center Opera House, one with whom an audience quickly seals an emotional bond. You get a sense that this role calls heavily on Buckley’s own emotional reserves, so much so that when she arrives at “Before the Parade Passes By,” the sentimental self-help number that closes Act 1, she can’t help but reveal the degree to which Dolly the survivor moves her, and she has to repeatedly wipe away the tears.
Watching this Tony-winning Broadway vet soak up the pleasures of playing the New York busybody — first dreamed up by Thornton Wilder in “The Matchmaker” — is touching. And it’s gratifying hearing her sing with her accustomed power and polish the tunes Jerry Herman composed for the 1964 musical version. She’s accorded able assistance on this occasion by Lewis J. Stadlen as the crotchety tightwad Horace Vandergelder, and a fine cadre of singing and dancing farceurs, among them Nic Rouleau as Cornelius Hackl, Sean Burns as Barnaby Tucker, Analisa Leaming as Irene Molloy and the pert and adorable Kristen Hahn as Minnie Fay.
“Hello, Dolly!” is a vestige for sure, from a time before sunny musicals were eclipsed by moodier material. Roll your eyes if you want; it’s a silly bauble, an affectionate slice of Americana with no agenda other than to charm. I’ve gone through phases of my life when its aspirations were too sugary for my taste — even as I always gladly hummed Herman’s infectious melodies. (You have to be under some kind of joy-canceling sedation not to be exhilarated by “Put on Your Sunday Clothes.”)
Zaks, choreographer Warren Carlyle, and set and costume designer Santo Loquasto lean in to the good-natured simplicity of Michael Stewart’s book, dressing the ensemble in a rainbow of pastels for “Sunday Clothes” and employing old-school backdrops for scenes of late-19th-century Manhattan. Carlyle exuberantly marshals the talents of the male dancers for the intricate waiters’ choreography in the Harmonia Gardens scene — a tribute to that maestro of golden-age Broadway hoofing, Gower Champion (who directed the original).
This production, which premiered on Broadway with Bette Midler as Dolly, to be succeeded by Bernadette Peters (with Donna Murphy in the role at certain prearranged performances), abounds in so much admirable showmanship that any resistance you may harbor inevitably recedes. The revival positively revels in innocence.
Rouleau, with his stirring tenor for “It Only Takes a Moment,” and Leaming, lending a sense of playful allure to “Ribbons Down My Back,” make for an appealing romantic couple, and Burns and Hahn prove well-matched for the guilelessness of Barnaby and Minne Fay. Stadlen is saddled with the one glaring miscalculation, an added comedy number, “Penny in My Pocket,” that not only stalls the exposition in Act 2, but is also hard to make out; Stadlen swallows some of the lyrics, a cardinal sin in the acoustically unforgiving Opera House.
He is, though, an ideal foil for the leading lady, who adds Dolly to the pantheon of parts she has taken on, of charismatic characters in quests for rebirth. From the ostracized Grizabella of “Cats” to the broken Norma Desmond of “Sunset Boulevard,” Buckley has often strikingly blended intensity and vulnerability in the cause of a woman seeking redress for the losses life inflicts. She does it again in Dolly, and while I’m sure I am not the first to offer this final request, I’ll make it anyway: Betty, don’t go away again.
Hello, Dolly!, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Michael Stewart. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreography, Warren Carlyle; sets and costumes, Santo Loquasto; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Scott Lehrer; music direction, Robert Billig. With Colin LeMoine and Morgan Kirner. About 2 hours 40 minutes. $49-$159. Through July 7 at the Kennedy Center. 202-467-6700. kennedy-center.org.