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Tallulah Hallelujah!

Tovah Feldshuh
in Tallulah Hallelujah!
First, let's talk about the coat. At the top of Tallulah Hallelujah! at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, Tovah Feldshuh--who does a damned good job of impersonating the late, great Tallulah Bankhead--enters through the audience in a luscious, full-length fur. This is the kind of coat Jacqueline Susann used to rhapsodize about, the kind Lucille Ball coveted. Falling almost to the floor, the mink (or sable) worn by Feldshuh might be taken as a symbol for the faded southern beauty known as Tallulah.

Big, spectacular, coffee table picture books have been dedicated to Miss Bankhead. Now, one of Broadway's most interesting, non-household-name actress/singers brings her own loving yet somewhat dastardly remembrance of Tallulah to the stage in a freewheeling evening of too few songs and far too many off-color jokes.

Oddly enough, this tribute--written by Feldshuh with Larry Amoros and Linda Selman--is set in 1956 on the night after Tallulah's infamous opening at City Center in a revival of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. As theater hounds know, the 54-year-old Tallulah was beaten to a pulp by the critics and all but shunned by Williams for her performance as Blanche DuBois, so this heroic, larger-than-life dame is in no mood for hanky-panky when she is called upon to introduce Ella Fitzgerald at a USO event. As it turns out, Ella doesn't show, and Tallulah is forced to carry the evening. The USO setting, a stand-up microphone, a pianist (Bob Goldstone), and a drop-dead-gorgeous soldier (Mark Deklin) add authenticity to this outer-limits evocation of Miss B.

During the show, Tallulah boozes it up and tosses one-liners as if she were a Catskills comic. "Let me lead you by distilled waters," she implores us as she rails on about Streetcar and just about anybody and anything she dislikes. This Tallulah can balance a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette holder in the other while letting chestnuts like "You never forget your fist time, it's the next 300 you have trouble with" drop from her lips. As she says to the handsome corporal, "One night with me and you'll see more than five stars." She also tells us that "I've slept with all the men in Hollywood: Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford!"

These zingers are deftly delivered by Feldshuh as she wrestles with Tallulah's famous Southern accent crossed with her adopted Queen's English. There is also a smattering of singing, something Feldshuh does as well as anybody--but here she affects a quasi-drunk vocal style that really doesn't do justice to most of the songs.

Feldshuh's visual transformation into Bankhead is good and spooky. Costume designer Carrie Robbins has the actress enveloped in a long, velvet gown; it beautifully accents the dark wig that leaps across her white shoulders and handsome forehead. And let's not forget that coat, worn to full advantage as Tovah/Tallulah prowls across the stage, the hem grazing the floor and making her seem like some kind of wild animal about to strike with bourbon in hand.

Is this evocation of Tallulah a success? Yes. Is it always lovely to look at or listen too? No. By evening's end, Tallulah has become so bitter that you just want her to go home and sleep it off. Can Kathleen Turner (who is heading to Broadway with her own Tallulah show) do any better? Who know? For years, downtown New York has been in love with a terrific act called The Dueling Bankheads, two guys who aptly read Miss B. up one side and down the other. So, what's wrong with having a few more Tallulahs on hand?