When Betty Buckley was offered the title role in the national tour of “Hello, Dolly,” she felt a moment of panic.
“I said, ‘What me? Jiminy crickets!’” Buckley recalled, with a Broadway-sized laugh. “‘That’s going to be a big boat to row!’”
Dolly Levi, the meddlesome maven of matrimony, is one of the great star vehicles of the stage, placing enormous demands on the leading lady.
But Buckley, a veteran of stage, TV and film, took the job, and the reviews have been glowing.
“Hello, Dolly,” staring Buckley, dances into the Peace Center on Tuesday for eight shows through Sunday.
For theater fans, the Tony Award-winning Buckley is a legend: the first Broadway Grizabella in “Cats” (she sings “Memory” on the original cast album) and star of “1776,” “Pippin,” “Carrie,” “Song and Dance,” “Sunset Boulevard” and other Broadway shows.
Many fondly remember Buckley as Abby in TV’s “Eight is Enough,” but she has dozens of other TV shows and films to her credit in addition to 18 solo albums.
For the past nine months, she’s toured the nation as Jerry Herman’s classic heroine, Dolly Gallagher Levi. You probably know the story: Dolly is a middle-aged marriage broker in 1890s New York City who also delves into side gigs such as music lessons and varicose-vein reduction.
When Horace Vandergelder, a wealthy grain merchant in Yonkers, hires Dolly to find him a wife, she chooses herself. The misogynistic Horace, however, is not interested, so Dolly creates a scheme to trick him into proposing.
“She brings Horace back to a sense of who he really is,” Buckley said, speaking by phone from a tour stop in Louisville, Kentucky.
“It’s a very beautiful, sweet story about choosing life and choosing love,” she said.
Herman’s score includes such Broadway standards as the tender “It Only Takes a Moment,” the soaring “Before the Parade Passes By” and, of course, the familiar title song.
Buckley takes on all eight shows a week.
“It’s a classic Golden Age Broadway musical and it’s one of the great roles for a leading lady of an undeterminable age, but it’s very difficult,” Buckley said. “At my age, 71, you have to work hard to be strong enough to do it. It takes an intense focus. You have to get your rest.”
She added with a laugh, “You have to eat long before the show so you’re not burping through the entire musical.”
For Buckley, Dolly is an “undercover feminist,” taking charge of every situation and improvising her livelihood by dint of creativity and willpower.
“She makes her living, catch as catch can, with her varied skills from match-making to short-distance hauling to instruction in the guitar and mandolin to piercing ears and re-boning corsets,” Buckley said.
“It’s set in a time (the 1890s) when the suffragettes had just started their revolution,” she added.
Dolly, a widow, often talks to her dead husband Ephram, but she’s not interested in retiring from life.
The show’s first act concludes with one of the great musical theater anthems of self-assertion: “Before the Parade Passes By.”
“She fully embraces the world of the living,” Buckley said.
Dancing like Olympians
The national tour of “Dolly” includes new orchestrations and a touring cast of 32.
“Our ensemble is out of this world,” Buckley said. “They sing like angels and dance like Olympians.”
Buckley also raves about the sets and costumes.
“It’s a sumptuous, beautiful production,” she said. “They’ve spared no expense for the tour. It looks exactly the same as it did on Broadway (in the acclaimed 2017 revival starring Bette Midler). It’s like spending an evening in your favorite ice cream and candy shop.”
Paul Hyde, a longtime Upstate journalist, writes about the arts for the Greenville Journal. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.
If you go
What: “Hello, Dolly,” by Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and Michael Steward (book), based on Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker”
When: May 28-June 2
Where: Peace Center
Tickets: $35 to $95
Info: www.peacecenter.org or 864-467-3000