After seeing Tallulah Hallelujah!, there is little doubt that Tovah Feldshuh adores Tallulah Bankhead. In this homage to the famously audacious and eventually self-destructive actress, we quickly learn a lot about her grit, humor, promiscuity and courage. Ms Feldshuh, who wrote and stars in this production, uses the premise that Tallulah was the celebrity emcee of an Ella Fitzgerald Concert for the USO in 1956. When Ella doesn’t appear, the unprepared Tallulah must replace her. This show is what we see for the next 90 minutes, and becomes a metaphor for her declining life.
When the USO show begins, a gorgeous Tovah Feldshuh saunters out in a full mink coat. Using a deep sultry voice, she flirts ferociously with her audience of servicemen. Exuding confidence and uninhibited sexuality, she spins off a series of amusing puns and double entendres that continue for a good half-hour. This, it seems, represents Tallulah at her nonconformist, uninhibited best.
As the performance goes on, an increasingly stressed Tallulah becomes more and more desperate for material. She breaks her two-month moratorium on alcohol and tobacco. She drinks glass after glass of bourbon and gradually loses control of the performance in the same way she is supposedly loosing control of her life. Not without thought of filler for Ms Feldshuh as well as Tallulah, she wanders into the audience asking questions like “What was the naughtiest thing you ever did?” and receiving answers like “I took my cousin’s iron when she wasn’t looking.” Even Tallulah didn’t have a witty comeback for that one.
Thankfully, Ms Feldshuh sings several songs to break up Tallulah’s breakdown. No one can stop the inevitable, and, as easily foreseen, the more she drinks the more the play drifts into a general chronological biography of Tallulah Bankhead’s life. This lets Ms Feldshuh pull out all the stops and the emotions fly. However, by that time, I’m not sure anybody in the audience really cared all that much.
Ms Feldshuh is a wonderful actress. The best moments of her performance in this production involve sad interactions with a handsome and gallant soldier (Mark Deklin), who she calls on stage to fetch her a drink or to light a cigarette. These short interludes tell us more about Tallulah’s state of mind than so much of the inane audience participation she uses to stretch the show. Ms. Feldshuh can also deliver a song with strength and pathos that few performers can match. If you are a Tovah Feldshuh fan, you probably won’t be disappointed with Tallulah Hallelujah! If you’re a Tallulah Bankhead fan, all bets are off.