By Michael Hillyer

The bad news coming out of Shubert Alley, at least for the Front Row Center staff writers and numerous other so-called “second night critics,” was that producer Scott Rudin’s continued chokehold on publicity outlets for the Bette Midler revival of “Hello, Dolly!” prevented us from attending and reviewing it. The good news, at least for me, is that my son presented his delighted parents with tickets as a Christmas present, and we attended “Hello, Dolly!” during Ms. Midler’s last week with the show. Her formidable understudy, Donna Murphy, is taking over until Bernadette Peters and Victor Garber are scheduled to replace the top bill two weeks from now.

I have been a fan of the Divine Miss M since my first year in college, when someone down the hallway at my dorm played “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” on the stereo. Down the hallway I went, to find out who was singing. Love at first sight. I have been loyal ever since; I bought all her albums, I watched videos of all her concerts, I saw all her movies. Favorite song? “Shiver Me Timbers.” (“Oh, you recognize?”) Favorite movie? For The Boys. On television? The best Gypsy I ever saw. Long story short, I never got to see her live onstage, however, until last night.

I have always been a fan of Jerry Herman, also. Love at first sight, again. My parents, who had many children and never went anywhere, unexpectedly hired a babysitter and went to Hartford one night to see Carol Channing in the first national tour of “Hello, Dolly!” at the Bushnell, and came back home with the cast recording. My sisters and I pounced on it, and played it to death. My grandmother had already dog-eared LP’s of “Mame” and “Dear World” that we also gave a workout. When I was a waiter at Joe Allen in the late ‘80’s, I sometimes had the privilege of waiting on Jerry Herman, and after a continuous career in NYC restaurants that is now approaching 40 years, if you were to ask me who my favorite customer was, over all that time, I would have to say Jerry Herman, hands down. He was so considerate, so engaged, such fun to be around, and so breathtakingly generous. No one else comes close.

However predisposed I may have been to like this show, I didn’t, really. Yes, Bette Midler is perfect in the title role. Not unlike the annoying exclamation point appended to the title of this play, her appearance in “Hello, Dolly!” caps an astonishing career-long Broadway progression from youngest daughter in the original company of “Fiddler On The Roof” to starring in a huge hit at the Shubert – from replacement Tzeitel to leading Yente about to be replaced. Ms. Midler is now 72 years old, and while her vocal powers are, naturally, somewhat diminished since her days as a rock star, her mischievous spirit sparkles through as it always has, and the audience just eats it up. They are there to see her. She is the show, really, she’s the only reason for this show, just as Bernadette will be when she joins the cast on January 20th. The show itself? Outdated and underwhelming.

While it was very fulfilling, in a personal way, to hear those gorgeous Herman melodies sung and delivered so beautifully by the entire company (but especially by Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin), those efforts are undone by Warren Carlyle’s lackluster, unimaginative choreography, Santo Loquasto’s ho-hum “Ye Olde New York” postcard set design and Jerry Zaks’s customary no-risk, by-the-book staging. David Hyde Pierce’s unconvincing performance as Horace Vandergelder isn’t helping things either: weren’t there any actors of the requisite age available to play this role?

While on the one hand, I am happy that this occasion finally afforded me the opportunity to see the Divine One in person, I have to confess that, at the end of the day, as an evening in the theatre it was pretty much, well, pointless. Apart from the money to be made from it, or the casting wizardry that enabled Bette Midler to shine in a role she was doubtless born to play, what is the point of producing “Hello, Dolly!” in this day and age? Aside from the pleasures of listening to the score, this musical comedy has about as much artistic significance, and about as much relation to what’s going on in the present world, as would a revival of “No, No, Nanette” or “The Boyfriend.” The only one out there taking a real risk is Ms. Midler; for the show’s producers this was a box office home run right from the get-go. Apparently, all they had to do is count the money and not give away too many lucrative seats to second night theatre critics.