Actress Tovah Feldshuh credits theatre critic Peter Marks for helping spark the idea for her current one-woman concert piece, Southern Comfort: The Rollercoaster Life of an American Legend, playing a New York City engagement Dec. 4-5 at Queens Theatre in the Park, Flushing Meadow, Queens.
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, the high-living, heavy lidded actress of the film, "Life Boat" and Broadway's The Skin of Our Teeth. 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 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 Jasper, AL, 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.")
Written by Feldshuh and Linda Selman, with musical direction by Bob Goldstone and direction by William Wesbrooks, Southern Comfort is presented as a conceptual concert set in 1956. At a USO benefit, Bankhead is asked to "vamp for five" until the delayed headliner, Ella Fitzgerald, appears.
What comes of the vamping are reminiscences that take the audience on the "roller coaster ride of her life: intimately talking 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. 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 said.
Feldshuh identified with Bankhead: They both had "very strong fathers," there is a resilience to both actresses. And Feldshuh knows what it's like to be a free-lancer in a profession that can be lonely.
"Early in my life, I didn't want to be alone," Feldshuh said. "[After] shows I would always go out with a gang of friends. [Tallulah's] parties lasted for days. She couldn't sleep alone."
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.
Southern Comfort was developed (with the assistance of creative consultants Larry Amoros and Morgan Sills) as a traveling-light vehicle, the sort of show that could be booked for a one-night benefit or a week's stand, in between film or TV gigs. Feldshuh packs her Paul Huntley wig, her Pascal Jutard gown, and gets takes off for her bookings. "It all fits in one suitcase," she said.
The actress 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 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.
"I'm developing this as a cabaret-concert piece with great purpose: This may be the way station to a great play," she said.
Songs in the show, which has Goldstone playing Meredith Willson (composer of The Music Man) at the piano, include "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You," "Bye Bye Blackbird," "The White Cliffs of Dover," "The Very Thought of You" and "Rockabye My Baby With a Dixie Melody."
A 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 the newly released, highly acclaimed "A Walk on the Moon," produced by Dustin Hoffman, directed by Tony Goldwyn, and also starring Diane Lane, Anna Paquin, and Viggo Mortensen. This summer she filmed "Happy Accidents" with Marisa Tomei, expected for a 2000 release.
Tickets to the Queens Theatre in the Park engagement of Southern Comfort (8 PM Dec. 4, 3 PM Dec. 5) are $15-$28. The theatre is on the old World's Fair grounds, in Corona Park, Queens. Call (718) 760-0064 for information.
-- By Kenneth Jones