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A CurtainUp Review Tallulah's Party

Except for one memorable film, Life Boat, and two plays, The Little Foxes and The Skin Of Our Teeth, she invested her considerable energies more to living life as one long party than to her acting career. And so Tallulah Bankhead is remembered largely for her role as the star of her own life. Her husky-voiced "Dah-ling" is a stock item in every impersonator's arsenal of impressions and at least a few of her iconoclastic bon mots find their way into every new quote book, as do quotes about her (for example, librettist Howard Dietz in reaction to her exhausting nonstop talking: "A day away from Tallulah is like a month in the country").

Clearly Tallulah's Party which just opened at the Kaufman Theater for an open run is aptly named. I can't compare it to the 1983 version at the West Side Arts Center which had a different libretto and starred Helen Gallagher alongside Russell Nype and Joel Craig. Nor can I compare it with the non-musical Tallulah! by Sandra Ryan Heyward which was a vehicle for Kathleen Turner at last summer's Chichester Festival. What I can tell you is that this is a generous and brave, if flawed, little musical.

Its bravery began with the process of bringing it to the Kaufman which was fraught with the kind of headaches about venues that didn't work out.

Tova Feldshuh brings a generosity of energy which more than matches the hyper-energetic Bankhead who neither sang or danced. The three co-stars -- Robert Cary, Bobby Clark and Alan Gilbert -- are equally generous with their talents adding several fine miniature character portraits to their song and dance routines. Alan Gilbert is particularly noteworthy as Tallulah's father as well as one of the Algonquin Round Table wits, Franklin P. Adams.

All four performers risk choreographic gridlock by doing several peppy dance routines, (including a terrific Charleston number), on the tiny space -- with Feldshuh actually doing somersaults! While they deserve some kind of navigational award, this triumphant attempt to conquer the stage's physical limitations does end up giving the proceedings a forced and frenetic quality.

To expand the size of the stage and enhance the sense of Tallulah-Tovah as the hostess at the party, they also move from stage to aisle and to the stage with practiced ease, with Ms. Feldshuh interacting with the audience and actually sitting in the lap of one aisle-sitter -- (would the real Tallulah have perhaps chosen a woman instead of a man?). At the end of Act One two of the men actually carry out a buffet table so that the party can continue during the intermission with the audience sipping champagne and nibbling fresh veggies and cookies. (The champagne has more fizzle than that poured at the Tony and Tina's Wedding dinner)

As already mentioned, I didn't see the 1983 version of this musical but I suspect that the current libretto goes further in embracing the whole span of the flamboyant Tallulah' life. It shows her as a star struck sixteen-year-old begging her dad and as a brash young actress demanding a place at the the elite Algonquin Round Table because as she tells Alexander Woolcott, nicely played by Robert Cary, "I enjoy the company of intelligent men -- they know everything and suspect nothing." From New York we follow her to London where she became a star and Hollywood which "had more horses' asses than horses." There are also more serious scenes such as her adored father's death and her own final descent into excessive substance abuse which is reminiscent of Truman Capote. Unlike Capote who who left a legacy of substantial works, Tallulah's claim to posterity hangs on her cache of one-liners. Ms. Feldshuh gives us a brief glimpse of the actress Tallullah might have been with a few lines spoken as Regina Giddens. This and other non-musical scenes make one wonder if this party would have been better if done as a straight memory play instead of trying to be all things to all audiences.

The emphasis throughout the two hours is on the one-liners which are sent out like so many fire crackers, beginning with theopening missile -- "Forgive me if I move a little slowly. I was fucked by a critic last night" which went over particularly well at the critic-filled performance I attended. But again, there's that sense of trying to get everything in, including every possible "Dah-ling".

To conclude our theme of Tallulah's Party as an exercise in generosity, there is the also generous seasoning of songs, sixteen of them. Ah, but there's the real rub of this busy bio-musical. With the exception of "It's A Hit", with its cleverly interspersed replays of Tallulah's less memorable Hollywood epics, most are of the so-so variety.

With a somewhat mundane musical score, a single set and few wardrobe changes (with one terrific hand painted silk kimono) is this intimate (translation: small cast, small theater, an "orchestra" consisting of a single piano) worth the rather substantial Off-Broadway price tag of $45? Before you zipper up your wallet think of Tallulah's own bits of wit and wisdom.

If you really want to help the American theater, don't be an actress, dahling. Be an audience.
And don't forget that little intermission feast!

Readers might be interested in checking out David Bret's biography Tallulah Bankhead : A Scandalous Life published by Parkwest (November 1997).

Directed by Latifah Taormina
Book: Bob Griffiths, with Latifah Taormina and J.D. Maria.
Lyrics: by Mae Richard
Staring Tovah Feldshuh and co-starring Robert Cary, Bobby Clark and Alan Gilbert
Choreography: Jerome Vivona
Musical director/arranger and pianist: Doug Katsaros
Set and Lighting: Kent Hoffman
Costumes: Pascale Jutard (with hand painted silk kimono by Moreg Benepe)
Kaufman Theatre, 534 West 42nd St. (212/279-4200)
3/10/98; opening 3/19/98
Reviewed 3/20/98 by Elyse Sommer
The party's over as of 3/29/98, after eight previews and 12 regular performances!

©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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