Well, well helloooo, Dolly!

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Betty Buckley won a Tony Award singing “Memory” in Cats but is probably best known as the tenderhearted stepmother on the TV show “Eight Is Enough.” Buckley returns to the musical theater stage as Dolly Gallagher Levi in the national tour of Hello, Dolly! running through March 17 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Buckley as Dolly and Lewis J. Stadlen as Horace Vandergelder with the company. Photos by Julieta Cervantes

I didn’t always get Hello, Dolly! partly because I didn’t think there was anything to get. I just thought I didn’t like it much. Sure, the Jerry Herman score is irresistibly cheerful, but I was always resistant to the Carol Channing clown show that so defined the musical from its inception in 1964 through Channing’s last tour in the mid-‘90s.

I saw the late Channing in her final tour and enjoyed her verve and comic skill, but the show was like an archival print you appreciate for its historical value more than it was a vital piece of musical theater. Then I saw the 2017 Broadway revival starring Bette Midler directed by Jerry Zaks. That bright, ebullient production was a whole different experience. The joy factor was enormous, the performances were warm and funny and Herman’s score was sheer delight from beginning to end. I’ve never experienced an audience so enraptured with a show that their collective adulation became a character in the show. It’s like the entire audience was enraptured and subjected to repeated fits of ecstasy. There was weeping and cheering and cheering on top of cheering.

That production reminded me that this musical has its roots in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, his second attempt at adapting a European play for American audiences. The first, 1938’s The Merchant of Yonkers flopped, but he revisited the play in 1955 as The Matchmaker, which was a hit and later served as the basis for Michael Stewart’s book for Hello, Dolly!. All those wonderful Wilder qualities – reminding us to live not merely inhabit our lives, to connect with other people, to trust more and worry less – were bursting out of the musical, which in itself provided a reason to revel in the present moment.

The Broadway revival has spawned a national tour with the marvelous Betty Buckley as Dolly, and while the erstwhile star of Cats, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Sunset Boulevard may not be the first person you think of when you think of musical comedy, she attacks the material as a serious actor and delivers a deeply felt performance full of life and love.

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The production, now at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, retains the colorful zest of the Broadway production, from the cheerfully old-fashioned sets and Easter egg-colored costumes by Santo Loquasto to the choreography by Warren Carlyle (inspired by the original staging by Gower Champion) that embodies the ideal combination of charm, athleticism and beauty in musical theater dance.

Buckley’s Dolly Gallagher Levi has to make us care about her in several ways. We have to empathize with her grief. She has, after all, spent the last decade mourning the loss of her great love, her husband Ephraim Levi. And we have to give ourselves over to the philosophy she has adopted for herself, which is that everything will work out just fine. She may seem a little kooky or daffy in her meddling and the way she posits herself as an expert at everything, but she does all of that wisely. She simply trusts that good intentions and allowing for the best in people will yield the best possible result. Buckley succeeds beautifully on both counts. She’s warm and funny and, in her monologues to her husband (taken right from Wilder), quite affecting. As a singer, Buckley is having fun with the Herman score. She can deliver the comic goods (“So Long Dearie”) and the belt (“Before the Parade Passes By”) in equal measure, all the while making it entirely her own.

Of course Dolly is the fulcrum of the farce, but surrounding her is a delicious assortment of comic performances. Lewis J. Stadlen is appropriately gruff as Yonkers unmarried half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder, but he’s also just sweet enough to make you want him to end up with the scheming Dolly (she wants him for his money so she can spread it around). His is a classic style of musical theater comedy, and it works perfectly here. His chemistry with Buckley delights, especially in their turkey-beet-giblet dinner scene at the Harmonia Gardens.

As Vandergelder’s employees, Nic Rouleau and Jess LeProtto playing Cornelius and Barnaby respectively find that nice balance – as so much in this production does – of comedy and humanity so that when their big day in New York yields true love for both, we’re giddy right along with them. Rouleau has a spectacular voice, and LeProtto is a deft physical comedian. As Irene and Minnie, the women who conquer the hearts of the Yonkers clerks, Analisa Leaming and Kristen Hahn have gorgeous voices and admirable comic chops. Like Barnaby and Cornelius, they are breaking out of their usual roles and diving into adventure with gusto.

The lavishness of the production, the energy of the choreography and the sweetness of the story all combine perfectly in Act 2 as Dolly prepares, in her words, to rejoin the human race, and makes her grand entrance at the top of the stairs at the Harmonia Gardens. The waiters have preceded her entrance with a dazzling “gallop,” and Zaks’ and Carlyle’s staging of the title song reveals one delight after another as Buckley sets out, or so it seems, to charm the entire planet.

There’s a refrain running through Hello, Dolly! that the world is full of wonderful things. This heartfelt, buoyant production – a vivid reminder of why it’s so beloved – is most certainly one of them.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Betty Buckley for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story here. Several paragraphs didn’t make the final edit and are included below:

The revival, Buckley says, feels connected to the original source material, Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” (which is actually a re-write of his earlier play, “The Merchant of Yonkers”).

“I am a Wilder devotee,” Buckley says. “In college, I played Mrs. Antrobus in his ‘The Skin of Our Teeth.’ There I was this budding feminist, a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine, and I was thrilled to have words for all these feelings I had growing up about the hypocrisy I saw around me, the inequity between men and women. And the reaction to these Wilder monologues I was speaking as this character were just visceral and emotional. It was such an enlightening experience for me. I will be forever grateful to Thornton Wilder.”

Many of Dolly’s monologues in the musical, Buckley points out, are pulled directly from Wilder’s play. “Here’s this beautiful, joyous musical, but within it is a message about the truth vs. the cultural notion of patriarchy and people who are focused on money and hardness learning more about their humanity and human connection,” Buckley says. “Dolly is a sage widow who has been retired, making a living catch as catch can, and she has intuitive gifts about life, love and connections. She decides to come back to life after 10 years of grieving, and she helps people remember where their hearts are. This story is so resonant and timely.”

Hello, Dolly! continues through March 17 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

Ah, Men! Betty Buckley tackles the boys of Broadway

In 1985, Betty Buckley was sensational as a boy in the Rupert Holmes musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood (which happens to be back on Broadway at the moment in an all-new production). She was playing Alice Nutting, a famous male impersonator, and the trousers role fulfilled a long-held fantasy of being a boy on Broadway (as a kid growing up in Texas she longed to be a Jet in West Side Story).

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Though she’s only ever played that one sort-of male character, Buckley has achieved other notable career heights, like her Tony for Cats and a string of memorable movie roles from the gym teacher in Carrie and a truly terrifying loner (named Mrs. Jones) in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. And her cabaret and concert career is one of the busiest and best reviewed in the country.

Well the 65-year-old Buckley is getting back to the boys in her new cabaret show and CD, Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway in which she sings more than a dozen songs originally sung by male characters in shows. (check on the CD or digital download on Amazon here)

On the phone from New York, where she’s performing yet another new cabaret show (The Other Woman: The Vixens of Broadway), Buckley says of the Ah, Men! show: “They’re just all songs I really love and never got a chance to sing until now.”

San Francisco audiences will experience the boyish side of Buckley when she brings Ah, Men! to the Rrazz Room this week (Oct. 30-Nov. 4). Among the songs she sings are classics like “Maria” and “Jet Song” from West Side Story and “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls and “Hey There” from The Pajama Game. There’s also an extraordinary suite from Sweeney Todd and a show-stopping re-write of “Hymn to Him” from My Fair Lady that is now “Hymn to Her” and samples tidbits of men’s songs from a vast array of Broadway shows. The latter was created by Buckley’s current musical conspirators, Eric Kornfeld and Eric Stern (also part of that triad is pianist and arranger Christian Jacob). “They’re my team now,” Buckley says. “This is the second collection they’ve done with me. I called them recently and said, ‘What’s the next one?’ We’re thinking about it.”

Betty Buckley Ah Men CD

The coming year is a big one for Buckley. In February she’ll play the Madwoman of Chaillot in a revised version of Dear World by Jerry Herman. Buckley is an inspired piece of casting for the role. She gets to sing two of Herman’s best songs, “I Don’t Want to Know” and “Each Tomorrow Morning.” Her director/choreographer is Gillian Lynne, whom she worked with many years ago on Cats.

Dear World is such an inspiring, touching show,” Buckley says. “It’s totally revised, completely different. Gillian is brilliant. We stayed in touch after Cats and talked about working together on different projects. Two years ago, she approached me with this, and last February it got serious. It’s thrilling to work on new material as your subconscious works to bring you to your creative awareness.”

Next year will also see the long-awaited release of Buckley’s album Ghostlight, which she made with superstar music producer and old friend T Bone Burnett.

The only drawback to Buckley being so busy is that she’s not able to spend much time on her Texas ranch, where she has a menagerie of 17 animals, including horses.

“I really haven’t seen the animals much this fall at all,” Buckley says. “I’m really concerned about leaving them when I go to London. I have to leave them in various people’s care, which is kind of traumatic. I’m taking my Shih Tzu, though. I’ll just have to tell the other animals, ‘I gotta go earn the money to pay for your grain and hay and vet bills and caretakers.’ I don’t think they get the concept.”

Though she has accomplished so much, Buckley says there’s still a great deal she’d like to do.

“I love working and collaborating with brilliant, wonderful, exciting, gifted people. So far, knock wood, that keeps happening. I’ve been so blessed. It’s really remarkable, and it’s been a wonderful journey thus far.”

Betty Buckley’s Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway runs Oct. 30-Nov. 4 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$60 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.

Tweeting, posting and singing with Betty Buckley

Betty Buckley

Onstage and online, Broadway legend Betty Buckley is electrifying.

If you’ve ever seen her perform on Broadway – perhaps in the original cast of Cats or as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard — or in concert halls large or small, you know just how electrifying she can be. Very few singer/actors connect to material the way she does.

But Buckley, at age 63, has embraced social media in a big way. On the advice of her brother, Norman, a television director, she got hooked up. Now she Tweets daily (@BettyBuckley) and posts on Facebook with regularity to her nearly 5,000 friends. To find a name for her latest concert, she asked her online followers for suggestions. The winner would receive two tickets to the show.

Buckley brings that show, called For the Love of Broadway, to the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko May 3 through 8.

On the phone from her ranch in Texas, Buckley says the new show’s title is but one of the advantages to being, as they say, wired.

“I had to learn how not to be so fixated by it,” she says. “When I was in San Francisco about a year ago, doing shows at Yoshi’s, all these Twitter and Facebook fans came, which was really a blast. It’s nice when people like my work and support. It’s nice to be in touch with them to see how they feel.”

The new show, which features music direction by John McDaniel, includes songs Buckley has loved but never had the opportunity to perform. She sometimes refers to them as “my shower songs – songs I sing in the shower but never really knew all the words to.”

Audiences members can expect songs from Avenue Q, South Pacific, The Pajama Game and Nine among others. That should please the show-music fans, of which Buckley has thousands.

But Buckley, a Texas native, has eclectic taste in music and is as likely to sing a country tune as a show tune. Her last album, Bootlegs: Boardmixes from the Road, featured eight live tracks including a new song from Michael McDonald, some country tunes and Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” a sneak preview of her forthcoming album, Ghostlight.

The new album is produced by T-Bone Burnett, the Grammy- and Oscar-winner behind such albums as the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand. Buckley and Burnett have known each other since high school in Fort Worth. Their mothers were friends, and at age 19, Buckley recorded her first album in Burnett’s recording studio (that album has since been re-mastered and released as Betty Buckley 1967).

Buckley recently heard the final remixes for the album, which should be out in November. “It’s the most wonderful recording I’ve ever done,” she says. “T-Bone is a genius. Some of the songs from For the Love of Broadway were cornerstones of that recording, but they’re done very differently than I do them in the cabaret setting. T-Bone calls the songs ‘my airs.’ He says, ‘I’m so in love with this recording of your beautiful airs.’ I’m so thrilled I can’t even tell you. This album is probably the truest to who I am than anything I’ve done.”

[bonus video: Betty Buckley performs “Meadowlark”]

If you listen to Buckley singing “He Plays the Violin” from 1776, which she recorded in 1969, and then listen to the live recordings from Bootlegs you hear the same singer but a very different voice.

“My voice is definitely different than when I was younger,” Buckley says. “I kinda like it. It’s richer and has more dark colors than when I was younger. As a kid I had this clarion mezzo-soprano voice. But I had some wonderful voice teachers – Paul Gavert, Joan Lader – who have helped me quite a lot. Paul really taught me to sing with a long line, with one vowel becoming the next vowel, how one thought becomes the next thought. It’s a brilliant way to approach singing. I’m so grateful I was able to learn from him. That’s how I could sing “Memory” night after night in Cats.”

As a singer’s voice changes over time, Buckley says, she is certain of one thing: a singer will always have a voice if she takes care of herself. “The voice follows who you are,” she says. “The instrument of my voice has deepened, gotten richer over time because I’ve grown as a person, changed as a person.”

Buckley has been teaching voice herself for nearly 40 years, but she credits Gavert with having a vision of her that was greater than she could have for herself.

“He was able to impart that vision to me and hold it in space with me in this long process until I could step into the potential he felt I had,” Buckley explains. “It took quite a while. That was such a gift to me when I look back. It’s so deeply touching that he would do that. I’ve always felt it was my responsibility to pass that on. I’m grateful to have an innate gift, but everything good I’ve learned to do I’ve learned from other people.”

Buckley had participated in a workshop performance of the new musical Tales of the City, which will be running at American Conservatory Theater shortly after her run at the Rrazz Room. She was rumored to be cast in the role of Mrs. Madrigal in the world-premiere production, but that didn’t work out.

This fall she’ll be back on the New York cabaret scene with a new show. Who knows? She may even ask her online followers to come up with another title. If she does, get to thinking: she says she’ll likely be doing men’s songs from Broadway shows.


Betty Buckley’s For the Love of Broadway runs May 3-8 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$55 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.