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Tovah Feldshuh gets her Irish up to play Dolly Gallagher Levi, and John Lavelle acts like a Wall Street minion in Burleigh Grime$. Plus: What went wrong with Tarzan?

Tovah Feldshuh as Dolly
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
The central character in Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker and in Hello, Dolly!, the Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart musical based on the play, is named Dolly Gallagher Levi -- which makes it pretty clear that she's an Irish woman who married a Jew. But Dolly has been played by actresses of widely varied races, religions, ethnicities, and temperaments: Ruth Gordon, Shirley Booth, Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, Barbra Streisand, and so on. When Streisand essayed the part in the film version of the musical, the "Gallagher" was dropped for obvious reasons. But Tovah Feldshuh, who's now rehearsing for the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Hello, Dolly!, is adamant about bringing the lady back to her true ethnic roots.

"Just look at the text," says Feldshuh. "Her very first line is 'That's right, Mrs. Dolly Levi, born Gallagher.' My back story for the character, if it's of any interest, is that Dolly was born in 1850 in Connemara in the Western part of Ireland -- the part that was hit hardest by the potato famine in the 1860s. Her mother and father and her 12 siblings somehow made it over to America. Dolly didn't hit these shores till she was 12 or 13, so her voice would have a slight Irish lilt, and I'm definitely going for it.

"Thornton Wilder wasn't writing about a Jewish woman at all," she continues. "First of all, Dolly can dance; Jewish women cook and study. Dolly has the jig in her background, she has the blarney -- and she's got a Bible with an oak leaf in it. Ain't no Jews running around with something like that! Dolly's a Christian, and I think she's an Irish Catholic." What of the character's age? Is it closer to Streisand's when she did the film (mid twenties) or Channing's when she did the most recent Broadway revival (mid seventies)? "I think she's in her mid to late forties at the time of the show," says Feldshuh. "She was married to Ephraim for a long time and lost him too young; now he's been dead for 10 years, and she's been living from hand to mouth."

Feldshuh has an interesting connection to the role in that she was very close to Ruth Gordon, the original Dolly in Wilder's play, and her husband, the legendary writer and director Garson Kanin. In fact, Feldshuh's son -- Garson Brandon Levy -- is named for Kanin. Since she had no idea that she would ever be playing Dolly, Feldshuh never asked Gordon about the role, but she recalls a pertinent comment that Kanin made: "When he talked me into staying with Yentl on Broadway rather than leaving to do the Richard Rodgers musical Rex, he said, 'Yentl is your show and Rex is Nicol Williamson's show.' Garson told me that getting to play the title role in a show is a rare privilege, even for the most successful actors, and he said that Ruth was in a very tough spot before The Matchmaker rebirthed her career."

Though Feldshuh has done some musicals -- Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, etc. -- that field hasn't been her main focus, so Dolly is a plum assignment for her. "I'm out of my mind thrilled to be doing this job -- and I think I've earned entry into the land of happiness, having played the prime minister of Israel for two years," she quips. Following up on her reference to her acclaimed performance in Golda's Balcony, I note that she sported a false nose in that show and ask if she'll be wearing any prosthetics as Dolly Gallagher Levi. "No prosthetics, but breasts," she replies enthusiastically. "My bosoms will be built up, my darling; I've lost a lot of weight, and they're like little acorns right now. I don't want to look like a flatboard in those costumes."


John Lavelle
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
My old high school, Monsignor Farrell on Staten Island, has produced very few professional actors, probably because the drama club was always pretty much an afterthought. (The school is big on football.) But now Farrell can boast about John Lavelle, who's rehearsing for the upcoming Off-Broadway production of Roger Kirby's Burleigh Grime$ in the excellent company of his TVQ-rich castmates James Badge Dale (24), Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me), Mark Moses (Desperate Housewive), and Ashley Williams (Huff).

"It's not a play and it's not a musical," says Lavelle of the show. "It's a play with music by David Yazbek. We don't sing anything, but the music hooks up to what we're doing on stage, and some of it functions as lines in the play. The band is involved in the action; some of the traders are guitarists, and sometimes they'll answer a line with a musical riff. It's kind of cool."

For Lavelle, Burleigh has been an eye-opener to the world of Wall Street, hedge funds, etc. "Some of the stuff in the play is so fantastical that you think it's got to be made up, but it isn't," he comments. "There's one bit about somebody salting the earth with gold dust so people will think there's gold on the land. We all cracked up at that, but Roger said, 'It really happened. I know the guy who did it!' The stylization of the show, with the music and everything, gives us a little more license to show how crazy these people can be. I play one of Grimes's minions. I'm a schemer, and all I really do is try to get more and more money.

"I'm so happy I don't have to do that for a living," says Lavelle. "I'm sure I'd have an ulcer by now. We went to Morgan Stanley and watched the guys work for a couple of hours. While we were talking with this one guy, he glanced at his computer screen and sort of blinked. We asked him, 'What happened?' He told us, 'Oh, I just lost $250,000.' We were, like, 'Are you okay?' He said, 'Yeah, I knew it was gonna happen; I'll make it back on this other thing.' Some of the guys were like that; others were constantly screaming and cursing into the phone, then they'd turn to the guy next to them and casually say, 'Hey, man, you wanna get some lunch?' It's really quite strange."

Lavelle attended Farrell many years after I did, graduating in 1999. But when we met for coffee recently, he told me that the routine of doing shows at the all-boys Catholic school with girls recruited from neighboring schools, and also doing shows at the girls' schools, was pretty much unchanged when he was there. "At Farrell, I played Danny Zuko in Grease, Will Parker in Oklahoma!, and Bobby Van Heusen in The Boy Friend," he says. "I actually got kicked out of the Farrell Players twice because I was a risqué guy. During the improv shows, I would take the joke to the next level where it became slightly offensive or non-P.C. So I would get kicked out -- but one of the priests always got me back in because they needed me to play the lead in the spring musical."

Given our shared experience doing high school shows at the same school, I brought up for discussion the ridiculous brouhaha that recently erupted over an unlicensed Bronx high school production of Chicago. "I was hoping you'd ask me about that," said Lavelle. "All these kids were so upset and the teachers were saying, 'This is outrageous!' I'm like, 'I grew up in New York. I know for a freakin' fact that you have to pay for rights to do high school shows -- and if a show is running on Broadway, you're not going to get to do it at a school in the area. Any idiot knows that."

Lavelle studied acting at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. No stranger to the professional stage, he played the title role in The Graduate during the latter part of that show's Broadway run, opposite Lorraine Bracco. Off-Broadway, he's been seen in such productions as Spatter Pattern and Rope. Now he's looking forward to the first public performance of Burleigh Grime$ on May 23; and he's having a great time rehearsing at the New World Stages complex (formerly Dodger Stages) on West 50th Street, where the show will open on June 13. "It reminds me of being in college and having six shows going on all around you," he says. "There's always something happening. It's nice, it's clean, it's big -- definitely not the typical Off-Broadway theater. I like it a lot."


Jenn Gambatese and Josh Strickland in Tarzan
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The fact that Disney's Tarzan opened on Broadway to largely terrible reviews last week can't have been a huge surprise to anyone who'd been listening to word of mouth (not to mention word of internet) about the show. But what really made me despair about the production even before I saw it was an article by Robert Feldberg that appeared in the Bergen Record on Sunday, May 7.

According to Feldberg, a major question for director Bob Crowley, composer-lyricist Phil Collins, and librettist David Henry Hwang in putting Tarzan together was "how to present the title character, whose image as a primal macho man is so deeply embedded in our culture. Would he, for example, sing? 'We discussed it for a long time,' said [Crowley], who is staging his first Broadway show -- one of a number of risks Disney is taking. 'A singing Tarzan -- it seemed rather weird. He doesn't sing in the [Disney cartoon] film." But "Crowley and his colleagues realized it would be hard not to have the lead character in a musical express himself in song, and they finally hit on what seemed a good solution. 'He sings about his feelings, what he isn't able to say,' said Crowley. 'I think the character gains real emotional depth.' "

Of course, this brainstorm is no brainstorm at all; the vast majority of all the songs ever written for musicals are about the characters' feelings. Confusion on this matter, not to mention everything else that's wrong with Tarzan, might well have been avoided if Disney had chosen a different creative team. Crowley has made a great name for himself as a set and costume designer but has never before directed a show. Hwang's play M. Butterfly is excellent, but his musical theater work thus far -- the libretto for Aida and that rewrite of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song -- has been, shall we say, less than excellent.

As for Phil Collins, his credentials as a pop singer-songwriter are beyond reproach but his knowledge of musical theater is spotty at best, as proven by a comment he made about his Tarzan score in the Bergen Record interview: "I didn't want to do the heavy vibrato, Ethel Merman kind of song. That's the cliché of Broadway. I saw Idina Menzel in Wicked singing 'The Wizard and I.' That had a kind of pop sensibility, and it showed me that it could be done." Note to Collins: The kind of sound you're talking about has been a part of Broadway at least since Hair in the late 1960s and has become more and more prevalent in the intervening 40 years. Further note to Collins: Denigrate Ethel Merman and the traditional Broadway sound at your own risk! Who do you think you are? Simon Cowell?

That Crowley and Collins have stumbled in their Tarzan assignments is certainly not to say that talented people shouldn't be allowed to grow and challenge themselves; but when artists branch out into different fields, they need strong support. I've often criticized the most recent Broadway production of Cabaret, but at least the Roundabout Theatre Company had the wisdom to tap musical theater veteran Rob Marshall as co-director and choreographer of the show, which would surely have been far less successful if Marshall hadn't lent a helping hand to out-of-his-element director Sam Mendes. There's a lesson to be learned here, and it's really too bad that it wasn't applied to Tarzan.


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