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A CurtainUp Review
Tallulah Hallelujah

by Barbara K. Mehlman

The kind of stage biography in which an actor re-creates a famous person, usually such a dynamic and defined personality that the audience instantly recognizes who it is, poses two challenges for the actor -- first, the audience is likely to compare the performer with the real person and second, the actor's persona must become unrecognizable to the audience.

I don't know whether the career dangers of donning a well-known person's image concerned Tovah Feldshuh , but she seems to have been born to play Tallulah. She looks like her, acts like her, and, except for occasional lapses in accent, sounds like her. For those of us too young to remember this over-the-top lady, Tovah has done her homework. What we see is an astonishingly accurate portrayal of the flamboyant woman who inspired Tennessee Williams and invented the word, "dahling."

Tallulah Hallelujah takes place at a USO benefit on February 19, 1956 in New York's theatre district. Tallulah, 54 in human years, but 24 in libido years, is there to introduce Ella Fitzgerald who is the performer for the evening. Wearing her trademark mink and pacing back and forth across the stage with strides wide enough to ford the Hudson, Tallulah, from the outset, is all exaggeration.

"Hello my dahlings," she says. "They call New York the Naked City. Do you think they named it for me?" She introduces her pianist, Meredith Wilson (Bob Goldstone -- there's also another occasional man on stage, Mark Deklin as one of the soldiers). She tells us that Wilson, "the Marconi of the keyboard," has just written a show called The Music Man and is here to accompany Ella on piano, but the great jazz singer is a no-show, trapped in New Haven because of highway flooding. What should I do, Tallulah wants to know? "Vamp for five" says Wilson.

If anyone knows how to vamp, it's Tallulah, and she ends up doing it for the entire evening. She goes from one unrelated thought to another, reciting bawdy limericks, singing, talking, teasing, flirting, and by the end of the evening, confessing and lamenting. An off-key rendition of "Bye, Bye Blackbird," her vocal range somewhere in the basement, is pure ham, and her high-stepping version of the Charleston, lifting her skirts high enough to see Richmond, surely must have been scandalous given her declaration that "I never wear underwear." She peers out at the soldiers attending the benefit and tells them: "I'm just like you boys, always ready for action." In her whisky voice, she recounts the four major food groups: "mint, ice, bourbon and tobacco."

Every so often, as sort of a running joke, she refers to Brooks Atkinson's scathing review of her performance in Streetcar Named Desire" which opened the night before. She almost convinces you that she's impervious to his opinion but ultimately the pain it caused her surfaces as she bitterly states, "Tennessee wrote the part with me in mind, and pursued me for nine years about Blanche, and now he (Atkinson) says I turned his play into a novelty act."

Feldshuh has added other details about the demon-filled caves of Tallulah's life -- the death of her mother ten days after she was born and her need to win the love of the father who never fully forgave her for his wife's death. Yet, as she wallows in self pity, Tallulah a never loses her sense of humor as when she blubbers into her drink, "Ella's probably singing it to one of those f---ing whiffenpoofs." Her saddest line, by far, is her own summation of her life: "I painted the canvas of my life. I thought it would be a Renoir, but it turned out to be a Jackson Pollock."

Tovah Feldshuh deserves her own hallelujah for losing herself in Tallulah and making her as vivid as if it were really her on the Douglas Fairbanks stage.

Editor's Note: This isn't Ms. Bankhead's first portrayal of Bankhead. There have been two other Tallulah-Tovah plays, the last Tallulah's Party which we reviewed two years ago had much in common with the current version -- including Tovah-Tallulah doing somersaults. (Tallulah's Party review). With two other Bankhead shows on the theatrical radar -- an eight-actor biodrama, Dahlin' (in previews) and a much anticipated solo play starring Kathleen Turner, you may want to check out Park David Bret's Tallulah Bankhead : A Scandalous Life

Written by: Tovah Feldshuh with Larry Amoros and Linda Selman
Directed by William Wesbrooks

With Tovah Feldshuh as Tallulah; Bob Goldstone as Meredith Wilson; Mark Deklin as Corporal Chapman
Scenic design: Michael Schweikardt Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter Costume Design: Carrie Robbins
Douglas Fairbanks, 432 W. 42 St. (9th /10th Aves). 212-239-6200
Tues through Sat at 8PM; matinees Wed at 2PM, Sat and Sun at 3PM. $45.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Performances from 9/19/2000; opened 10/10/2000.
Reviewed by Barbara K. Mehlman based on October 5, 2000 performance

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