Also see John's review of Side Show
Nor is the question of the day whether or not Valerie Harper, who's been playing Golda Meir in the touring production since last November, does the part justice. She does, though in a very different way from Tovah Feldshuh, who created it on Broadway and re-created it for audiences in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Ms. Harper doesn't physically impersonate Mrs. Meir as fully as did Ms. Feldshuh, and doesn't seem to have quite the gravity – either in tone or in literal weight. Ms. Harper, though in reality twelve years older than Ms. Feldshuh, seems a younger Golda – moving about the stage with energy and agility. Valerie Harper's Golda has a better sense of humor as well. Though she doesn't push for easy laughs and she's clearly not trying to be make Golda Meir a comic character, Ms. Harper is such a good and natural comedienne she can't help but get the most of out of lines like the one in which she shushes the background score by shouting "I could do without the music!"
Ms. Harper puts across the monumental significance of the brinkmanship during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Mrs. Meir nearly took the world into nuclear war. She's adept with the many character voices Golda assumes – of men including Henry Kissinger, Moshe Dayan, David Ben-Gurion and her husband Morris Meyerson - in recounting the stories of her life. She doesn't attempt to transform her voice to the deeper tones of Mrs. Meir, so we can't entirely be blamed if we still see Ms. Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern. Still, our refusal to forget Rhoda is most likely simply the price Ms. Harper must pay for creating one of the best-loved characters in television history; the audience seemed anxious to laugh with Golda as much as we did with Rhoda. If it's harder for Valerie Harper to lose herself in Golda it may be because we feel we know Ms. Harper so well.
No, the question of the day on May 31, 2006 is how's the Shubert, reborn as the LaSalle Bank Theater after a renovation that took more than a year to complete? It's a question the audience of this inaugural performance arrived unusually early to answer ... luxuriating in the expanded lobby (not as immense as those of the Oriental and the Cadillac Palace, but with at least twice the space of the old lobby) and gawking at the sparkling gold leaf in the auditorium ... and staying in the house long after Ms. Harper took her bows, to check out the newly decorated balconies, rimmed with series of decorative lights and enjoying the subtly "new" smell of the fresh carpeting, upholstery and paint.
Yes, the renovations are a winner, giving the theater not only the glamour and sense of occasion that had been lacking at the Shubert (but present in the renovated Oriental, Palace and Chicago Theaters), but providing improved physical comfort that had been so badly needed. Though no worse than the average vintage Broadway theater, Chicago's Shubert was a bit of a nightmare in comparison to the previously more recent renovations. Getting in to one's seat was a struggle, going to the restroom at intermission a small ordeal. By taking over the retail space next door and adding it to the lobby areas, the experience is far more comfortable. Now there are two stairways down to the lounge level and three times as many restrooms in the theater. There's a new space for the bar and in the house, legroom has been expanded with the removal of 20 seats and a reconfiguration of the seating patterns.
Though the LaSalle Bank Theater seats about as many as the Cadillac Palace and the Oriental, its more vertical design keeps the audience closer to the stage and makes it feel smaller than the other houses. It's a better house for shows that require a more intimate setting. In all honesty, it's still a bit too big for Golda's Balcony, but it could do just fine for say, Avenue Q. In any event, with Wicked apparently destined to keep the Oriental booked for the next several decades, the theater community will be happy to have this house back in business.
Golda's Balcony will play at the LaSalle Bank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, through June 11, 2006, with performances Tuesdays through Sundays. Ticket prices range from $32-$65 and are available at Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, by phone (312-902-1400) or through Ticketmaster. For more information, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Photo: Aaron Epstein