Two years ago Tovah Feldshuh appeared Off Broadway as Tallulah Bankhead in the rewritten and renamed 1983 musical “Tallulah’s Party.” She survived that experience better than the musical itself and for the past year or so has been developing a new Tallulah show she has written with Linda Selman. Following work-in-progress performances elsewhere, she appeared in what was billed as the world premiere of her “Tallulah Tonight!” at Hartford’s TheaterWorks prior to a projected Off Broadway run.
Clearly, Feldshuh and Selman have done their homework, though they have, of course, had to be selective and sometimes the “truth” of what their play tells is questionable.
Feldshuh works like a Trojan in a literally cartwheeling, no-holds-barred performance. She has a pianist onstage (the expert Bob Goldstone) and actor Mark Desaulnier puts in occasional appearances as a young private (cue for privates jokes). But “Tallulah Tonight!” is essentially a one-woman show, and Feldshuh takes it on with fierce determination and enjoyment.
Bankhead had a larger-than-life persona, and at times she caricatured herself, so it’s difficult for anyone else not to fall into the same trap. Feldshuh doesn’t always succeed, though this can be partially forgiven because her play is basically all about the public rather than the private Tallulah.
It takes place at a 15th-anniversary benefit for the USO in 1956, on Bankhead’s night off from her performances as Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at New York City Center. She’s at the benefit to introduce the main entertainer, Ella Fitzgerald. But Ella is held up by flooding, and Bankhead ends up doing the entertaining.
It is Bankhead’s “Streetcar” experience that gives the play its most moving moments and brings Feldshuh nearest to the sensitive gallantry of the actress.
The opening night of Bankhead’s “Streetcar” was sadly compromised by the insensitive behavior of some of the actress’s fans. This hurt her deeply, because she believed that her performance as Blanche was among her best. By the time she gets to relating this sorry story late in the play, Feldshuh’s Tallulah is rather the worse for drink and has become emotionally overwrought. It’s to Feldshuh’s credit that she makes this scene truly touching.
Earlier on, we get more of the bawdy, bad-girl picture of Bankhead, who shocked and titillated with her suggestions of bisexuality, her foul mouth and her tendency to not wear underwear. But as the play proceeds, Feldshuh’s portrayal of Tallulah grows ever deeper.
Feldshuh captures the external elements of Bankhead very well. The hairdo, overlipsticked mouth, plucked eyebrows, loping walk, mezzo-basso voice and long, phallic cigarette holder are all there.
And, as her Tallulah entertains the mostly armed-forces audience at the USO benefit, she certainly knows how to play a crowd, vamping men (and women) in the front row and ad-libbing cleverly.
The play is a bit too long (cuts early on would help), and Feldshuh might consider reining herself in sometimes (Tallulah usually remained a lady even when at her most unladylike).
But at its best “Tallulah Tonight!” is often wildly funny (including raunchy jokes), vividly entertaining and ultimately moving as it relates not only the “Streetcar” debacle but also the death of Tallulah’s Southern-belle mother shortly after her daughter’s birth and the fact that Tallulah felt her adored father never had enough time to give to her.
Along the way this Tallulah sings quite a bit, as did the actual woman, even though she admitted she couldn’t sing. Feldshuh’s accompanist and musical director/arranger Goldstone portrays the Broadway composer Meredith Willson, who was a big wheel on radio’s “The Big Show,” on which Bankhead was mistress of ceremonies.
Among the songs Feldshuh sings or talk-sings are numbers by Noel Coward, Cole Porter (the rarely heard “Pets”), Willson himself (“Goodnight My Someone”), and even Kurt Weill (“Lost in the Stars”).
We’re also given Al Jolson’s version of “Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” and a snippet of “Hamlet,” along with “The Very Thought of You” and Ella’s “A-tisket A-tasket,” the latter a particular hoot.
The patriotic red-white-and-blue setting and Tallulah’s long fur coat and Diorish cocktail dress are just right.
And the sheer energy Feldshuh projects with the help of director William Wesbrooks is hard to resist. But there’s always that basic problem: Over the years, Bankhead has been over-impersonated to the point of parody. Not even Feldshuh can always avoid that.