Fifty-four years ago, Broadway audiences said hello to what would become one of musical theater’s most celebrated characters. Bold, brassy, hilariously scheming, determined at every turn — and a tad more seasoned than the typical stage musical ingenue — Dolly Gallagher Levi endeared audiences as only a handful of leading lady roles had done prior — or since. And with a titular anthem as sparkling as your first-ever glass of champagne, what’s not to love about “Hello, Dolly!”?

Wednesday night at the Oriental Theatre, there was much to love about the national touring production of “Hello, Dolly!,” which arrives hot on the heels of the 2017 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival led by Bette Midler (and later Bernadette Peters) who put their indelible stamps on the title role originated by Carol Channing those five decades ago, followed in 1968 by Pearl Bailey.

‘HELLO, DOLLY!’
★★★1⁄2
When: Through Nov. 17
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets: $27-$98
Info: broadwayinchicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

This time around, it’s Broadway veteran and Tony winner Betty Buckley (“Cats”), who leads that glorious 14th Street parade, and to paraphrase one of the show’s prettiest ballads, it only takes a moment for her to wrap the audience right around those elegantly gloved fingers of hers.

Directed by Tony winner Jerry Zaks, with a book by Michael Stewart, and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, the musical (based on Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker”) tells the story of the marvelously meddlesome matchmaker/jack-of-all-trades Dolly Levi, shuttling back and forth between the hustle and bustle of late 1800s New York to the idyll of suburban Yonkers, where her client — the cantankerous “half-a-millionaire” widower and mercantile establishment owner Horace Vandergelder (Lewis J. Stadlen in a superb turn) — prepares to head to the Big Apple to pop the question to widowed milliner Irene Molloy (Analisa Leaming). Or so he thinks.

Enter the show’s secondary storyline: Vandergelder’s underpaid and overworked chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (the spectacular Nic Rouleau) and his co-worker pal Barnaby Tucker (dancer extraordinaire Jess LeProtto) decide they, too, will head to NYC while the boss is away, searching for adventure and whatever else comes along. Cornelius wants to kiss a girl. Barnaby just wants to see the stuffed whale at the museum. Or so he thinks.

Betty Buckley and Lewis J. Stadlen star in the national touring prouduction of "Hello, Dolly!" | Julieta Cervantes Photo

Betty Buckley stars as Dolly Levi and Lewis J. Stadlen portrays Horace Vandergelder in the national touring production of “Hello, Dolly!” | Julieta Cervantes Photo

Of course, all of their big-city paths will hilariously cross thanks to the fast-talking and clever Dolly, who has her eyes on the prize (Horace) and a soft spot for the young love that conveniently blossoms over the course of the day for Cornelius and Irene, and Barnaby and Irene’s employee, the giddy Minnie Fay (played to perfection by Kristen Hahn). All their fates will be decided over dinner and dancing at the lavish Harmonia Gardens restaurant, where Dolly and her late husband, Ephraim, once held court and where Dolly, now resplendent in a sparkling red gown and feathered headdress, makes her triumphant return to seal her own matchmaking deal. The scene’s razor-sharp choreography during the “Waiter’s Gallop,” and of course the rousing title tune, fuel  the culinary madcap mayhem and earned a well-deserved extended ovation from the opening-night audience.

The show is peppered with a bevy of dynamic songs, including “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “Before the Parade Passes By,” driven by an ensemble cast that knows no bounds when it comes to song and dance. Warren Carlyle’s choreography (based on the original by Gower Champion) is a triumph of genres. Resplendent in the lavish costumes of Tony winner Santo Loquasto, the singer-dancers look every bit as gorgeous as the demanding footwork they flawlessly execute. Loquasto’s scenic design (fully replicated from the Broadway version), which includes a steam-whistled train, is a wonder, not to mention an almost impossible extravagance for touring productions nowadays.

Barnaby (Jess LeProtto) and Cornelius (Nic Rouleau, far left, front, in aprons) join their employer Horace Vandergelder (center) and the ensemble in rousing chorus of "It Takes a Woman" from the national touring production of "Hello, Dolly!" | Julieta Cervantes

Barnaby (Jess LeProtto) and Cornelius (Nic Rouleau, far left, front, in aprons) join their employer Horace Vandergelder (center) and the ensemble in rousing chorus of “It Takes a Woman” from the national touring production of “Hello, Dolly!” | Julieta Cervantes

Which brings us back to Buckley. Nowhere near as boisterous as Midler or as zany as Channing, she nonetheless possesses an  endearing stage presence all her own. At times gingerly battling what seemed to be an opening-night cold, the actress dabbed her eyes at times and ingeniously made use of strategically placed handkerchiefs without missing a beat. Known to many for her lilting strains in the show-stopping “Memory” from “Cats,” on this night Buckley took strong hold of Jerry Herman’s more vibrant tunes. At 71, she sprightly navigated every inch of the stage, a beaming smile and twinkle in her eye every step of the way.

There is comedy and tragedy at play in Dolly Levi, a woman whose life is passing her by, but a woman who smartly (and desperately) takes hold of the reins once again. Buckley keenly delivers the subtle nuances necessary to convey all the emotions inherent in a woman at the crossroads. After all, it’s never too late to find new meaning in life, and with a little bit of luck (and some Broadway musical contrivances) you just might find love, too.

Dolly Levi is indeed right back where she belongs — on stage, and in our hearts.

The ensemble performs "The Waiter's Gallop" in the national touring production of "Hello, Dolly!" at the Oriental Theatre. | Julieta Cervantes

The ensemble performs “The Waiter’s Gallop” in the national touring production of “Hello, Dolly!” at the Oriental Theatre. | Julieta Cervantes