Actress Tovah Feldshuh vamped her way through regional theatres, concert halls and auditoriums over the past two years, developing a piano-backed musical show about the legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead. On Oct. 10, her hard work with her collaborators paid off when Tallulah Hallelujah!, which includes a third performer, Mark Deklin, opened at Off-Broadway's Douglas Fairbanks Theatre.
The three-character bio show, previously known as Southern Comfort and Tallulah Tonight!, ends its run at the Fairbanks Dec. 31, a box office spokesperson confirmed (Dec. 14). It will have played 23 previews and 97 performances. No word yet on what will come into the Off-Broadway house after that.
Previews for Tallulah Hallelujah!, billed as a play with music, began Sept. 19. Feldshuh penned Hallelujah!, with additional material by Larry Amoros and Linda Selman. William Wesbrooks directs.
Deklin plays a young G.I., Corporal Chapman, who brings news to Bankhead while she is appearing in a USO benefit. Deklin's recent work includes Roundabout Theatre Company's Arms and the Man, Hartford TheatreWorks' Snakebit and the Jewish Repertory Theatre revival of Home of the Brave.
Tallulah Hallelujah! also features Bob Goldstone (musical direction and arrangements), who plays Bankhead's real-life accompanist, the composer Meredith Willson (The Music Man). Designers are Michael Schweikardt (set), Carrie Robbins (costumes), Jeff Croiter (lighting) and Paul Huntley (hair). Eric Krebs and Chase Mishkin produced this portrait of the famed, drowsy eyed Bankhead, whose best known works were "Lifeboat" on film and The Skin of Our Teeth on stage (plus a legendary appearance in A Streetcar Named Desire). In 2001, another Bankhead bio piece, Tallulah, is expected to land on Broadway starring Kathleen Turner. It is currently on a national tour.
Krebs told Playbill On-Line that Feldshuh invited him to the recent Hartford, CT, development run of the show (when it was called Tallulah Tonight!), and he had no expectations other than a professional courtesy visit. Krebs said, "I was extremely entertained and engaged and I thought, 'Oh, Lord, I'm hooked again.'"
Krebs' recent producing credits include Electra with Zoe Wannamaker and It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues. He is founder and artistic director of the John Houseman and Douglas Fairbanks Theatres.
"I love and respect Tovah's talent, I think she's one of the great ones," said Krebs, who was a newcomer to the world of Bankhead. "It's much more than a one-woman bio show, it has three performers, and she does such a terrific, fulfilling, emotional job with it."
Set at a USO fundraiser in 1956, the conceptual piece has Bankhead "vamping for five" for the audience while headliner Ella Fitzgerald is delayed. Tallulah shares stories of her life and sings songs of Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Meredith Willson, among others.
Feldshuh credits theatre critic Peter Marks for helping spark the idea for the show, which had been a cabaret-concert piece in its development, 1998-2000. Under the title Tallulah Tonight! the show played a month at Hartford, CT's TheaterWorks in April and May.
Tickets for the Off-Broadway run are $45. The Douglas Fairbanks Theatre is at 432 West 42nd St. (on Theatre Row). For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432 7250.
Of her performance as the legendary actress in an Off-Broadway piece called Tallulah's Party, The New York Times' Marks wrote, "Tovah Feldshuh wraps herself in the role of Tallulah Bankhead with such wild devotion, and looks so good in her Margo Channing off the shoulder dress, she makes you feel as if you're in the room with that profane life force."
Feldshuh, known to Broadway audiences for Lend Me a Tenor and other plays, was already fascinated by Bankhead. Why not develop a concert show with music that can easily tour?
"I have a wild imagination and I love making a living channeling other people," Feldshuh told Playbill On-Line.
She was fascinated by the conflict of the public confidence Bankhead showed and the personal insecurity underneath, but, she said, above all, by the woman's resilience. "And her freedom!" said Feldshuh. "Between the cocaine and the liquor and bisexuality..."
There was also a great sense of freedom to the personality of Bankhead, who was born in small-town Alabama and moved to New York City as a teenager in an attempt to recreate herself. (Bankhead is sometimes mistaken for a British actress, and she did indeed work in England, but Feldshuh observed, "the Southern accent is really a British accent under heat.")
In the show, Bankhead reminisces about "her family, her politics, her relationship with Tennessee Williams, her lovers, and her struggles with the discipline of acting versus the extravagance of legendizing herself," said Feldhshuh. "She uses the savvy music and lyrics of Noel Coward, Cole Porter, and Johnny Mercer among others to heighten the experience of the evening."
Feldshuh, who studied the work and biographical elements of the actress, said Bankhead's mother died giving birth to Tallulah. "It must have been a terrible burden for her," Feldshuh said.
Feldshuh got a taste of solo shows not only with her cabaret acts Tovah: Out of Her Mind and Tovah: Crossovah! From Broadway to Cabaret, but with the smash Hartford, CT, staging of Full Gallop in 1998.
"The demographics of my audience have changed," she said. "It's fun to play to younger audiences and I want to entice and engage the gay population of the country, much like Tallulah did."
The Tallulah-themed show premiered at Odette's in New Hope, PA, in 1998 and has been seen at the Helen Hayes Center in Nyack, NY, the White Barn Theatre and the O'Neill Center in Waterford, CT, among other spots.
Songs in the show previously included "Bye Bye Blackbird," "The White Cliffs of Dover," "The Very Thought of You" and "Rockabye My Baby With a Dixie Melody," among others.
Three-time Tony Award nominee Feldshuh's New York credits include Yentl, the Roundabout Theatre's She Stoops to Conquer and Mistress of the Inn, BAM's Three Sisters, Broadway's Cyrano, Rodgers and Hart, and Dreyfus in Rehearsal. She appeared for a year as Dr. Bethany Rose on "As the World Turns," and recently appeared in the miniseries "A Will of Their Own." Her films include "The Idolmaker," "The Blue Iguana," "A Day in October," "Brewster's Millions" and "A Walk on the Moon," produced by Dustin Hoffman, directed by Tony Goldwyn.
In February 2000, Feldshuh appeared in workshops of two musical versions of plays by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber: Dinner at Eight and The Royal Family of Broadway.
Tallulah is all the rage in New York City this season: Off-Off Broadway, Dahling, a new eight-actor play by Nan Schmid, ran in October at the Grove Street Playhouse. The New York premiere of Nan Schmid's play — which uses Bankhead's famous drawled term of endearment as its title — was billed as "not a one-woman show," in response to the Broadway-bound Kathleen Turner solo vehicle.
— By Kenneth Jones
David Lefkowitz and Robert Simonson