Bottoms Up, Tallulah! … World According to Gorey

Tallulah Bankhead, as some wiseacre once observed, was a lot of things to a lot of people, but she never

Tallulah Bankhead, as some wiseacre once observed, was a lot of things to a lot of people, but she never was a bore. I knew her briefly, but well, before she died of pneumonia brought on by her own excesses in 1968 at age 66. I always seem to meet the great ones when they’re on their last thimble of Jack Daniels, but after meeting Tallulah the Icon, I got used to her phone calls (“Get your ass over here, dahling, ’bout drink time!”) and planned ahead. (No visit with the brandy-soaked Ms. B. ever ended before 5 a.m.) In the surfeit of cult books about her flamboyant life, you sometimes see the final photos of Tallulah in public, smoking furiously with a banner across her body that reads “Miss Bette Davis.” They were taken at a party celebrating a book I wrote. The guests were requested to dress as their favorite movie stars. Tallulah, of course, came as herself, but throughout the evening, she mischievously pointed to her banner with fire-engine-red talons, growling, “I’m the only one here, dahlings, who obeyed the instructions of her host.”

I once asked the pickle-faced but fascinating Lillian Hellman about the decades of feuding that began in 1939, when Tallulah starred triumphantly in Ms. Hellman’s famous play The Little Foxes , and continued to the grave. “It’s a long story,” she said, “and Tallulah has never been interested in long stories-unless she’s telling them herself.” A lot of them are told in Tallulah Hallelujah! , the raucous celebration of her life and times at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre that is drawing audiences of every age and persuasion who want to learn more about a character people are still quoting 32 years after her final exit line. Tovah Feldshuh, the gifted, versatile and charismatic singer-actress with the impossible name, plays the subject of this intermissionless, one-hour-and-40-minute “revue” with the same slash of blood-red lipstick, the same hurricane of hair (washed daily with the cleaning fluid Energine), the same tubercular laugh and oversized mink coat that were Tallulah talismans. The show is as uneven as a straight line cut with pinking shears, but Ms. Feldshuh’s exhausting tour de force is a passionate, poignant and hilarious highlight of the new theater season.

The setting is a 1956 benefit for the U.S.O. that Tallulah is hosting on the night immediately following her calamitous opening in the infamous City Center revival of A Streetcar Named Desire , in which her performance as Blanche DuBois earned murderous reviews. (During the rape scene, one critic observed, the audience was rooting for Stanley Kowalski.) Bloody but unbowed, a devastated, valiant Tallulah shows up to honor her commitment, only to discover that the special guest star, Ella Fitzgerald, has been stranded in a snowstorm. For the rest of the evening, she is forced to entertain 200 soldiers in uniform all by herself (a challenge for which she insists she is fully prepared, and who would doubt her?). With a double bourbon in one hand, and dumping a trail of cigarette ashes all over the place with the other, she overcomes her initial stage fright by assigning nicknames to all (the people in the front row were “Lady Astor,” “Gertrude Stein,” “Sigmund Freud,” “Peter Pan” and “General Dwight Eisenhower”).

With Bob Goldstone portraying Meredith Willson, Tallulah’s longtime conductor before he wrote The Music Man , Ms. Feldshuh is off to the races, vamping, ad-libbing, croaking “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Gettin’ Corns for My Country,” doing cartwheels, telling raunchy jokes so old they are hairy, and dripping Tabasco into the stew with an endless supply of infinitely quotable and largely unprintable opinions of Gerald Du Maurier, Joan Crawford, Alfred Hitchcock, Amelia Earhart (“They say they don’t know where she went down … I do, dahlings!”), Tennessee Williams and Hattie McDaniel. Working the audience, she puts on a cross between a burlesque show and a command performance at Buckingham Palace. Ms. Feldshuh is something of an indefatigable fireworks display herself. It is worth the price of admission just to see her doing Tallulah doing Ella doing “A Tisket, A Tasket, I Lost My Goddam Yellow Basket.” Uproarious.

But as the evening wears on and the highballs kick in, Ms. Feldshuh prunes away the self-deprecating camp humor and touchingly reveals the heart and the vulnerability of a great star trapped in the caricature of her own comic creation. Drag queens have been giving us the clown seen on the surface for years. Ms. Feldshuh gives us the real woman behind the mask. An Alabama beauty with a respected Congressman for a father, Tallulah, seeking approval from strong men early, carved a career out of pure guts, determination and chutzpah, rose to critical acclaim on the Broadway and London stage when she still had her looks, crashed from grace in the 1950’s, reinvented herself wearing no panties and swearing on TV talk shows and sitcoms like I Love Lucy , and became a hostage of her own invention (shades of Truman Capote).

She was a tempest of contradictions, and a surprising number of them are dutifully captured in Tallulah Hallelujah! When the star forgets her function, throwing herself into a loud “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” like Judy Garland, she is pure Tovah Feldshuh and nothing to do with Tallulah at all. But most of the time, she offers a fair, funny and accurate approximation of a bigger-than-life gargoyle with a candy violet for a heart. There has never been anyone like her, and this brief visit is a vigorous reminder of what we’ve all been missing.

World According to Gorey

A sinister entertainment called The Gorey Details has arrived at the Century Theater in time for Halloween. It’s funnier than a lopsided pumpkin. I’ve been collecting queer little volumes of gruesome pen-and-ink drawings and morbidly funny stories and rhymes by Edward Gorey, master of the moribund, for many years. When this dark and delusional mystery man from Cape Cod died earlier this year at 75, grotesque volumes of his 100 or so books such as The Fatal Lozenge , The Loathesome Couple , The Unstrung Harp and his classic “pornographic work,” The Curious Sofa (“Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan”), became collector’s items. You may best know him for his Tony Award–winning black-and-white set designs for the famous Broadway revival of Dracula in 1979, or for the cheerfully macabre opening and closing titles on the PBS Mystery! series. Now, in this delightful “musicale,” a talented, multi-faceted and distinctly odd-looking cast of nine, under the droll direction of Daniel Levans, are mining fresh horror from his austere oeuvre , with deliciously wicked results. I cannot tell you how much it appeals to the perverse sense of humor in me.

With weird costumes and loopy songs by Barbra Streisand’s No. 1 arranger, Peter Matz, you are swept into a vortex of Edwardian drawing rooms and Victorian attics of terror and dread (and constant off-the-wall humor), where creatures named Ogdred Weary, Hortense Caviglia and Yipyop sing of unstrung harps, demented vicars, poisoned divas and kidnapped children, at times doing it on bicycles and roller skates. The words are often from a Gorey lexicon so bizarre you laugh at the mere pronunciations. The wonderful sets by Jesse Poleshuck, uniquely drawn in Gorey’s own style, include a blackened fireplace over which hangs the painting of two dolorous children staring at a dead, upside-down cow. Reappearing from time to time is a cardboard vat of a dastardly elixir called “Q.R.V.” that stains your lingerie, unclogs drains and provides the secret ingredient in turnip jam. Do you get the picture?

In droll Halloween costumes, the cast sings of a town so steeped in morbid depression the vinegar works close down. Rueful skits include “The Weeping Chandelier,” about a child whose parents move away and leave her locked in an attic, where she’s adopted by dancing bats who form a vaudeville act. “The Deranged Cousins” introduces three grim relatives named Rose Marymarsh, Mary Rosemarsh and Marsh Maryrose, who murder each other in novel ways. One dies in a quarrel over a bed slat; another is carried away by an unusually high tide; the third succumbs after drinking the dregs of a bottle of poisonous vanilla extract. In “The Insect God,” an innocent child is lured from the grass by a tin of cinnamon balls and sacrificed to a monster in a deserted grotto. A music-loving maniac stalks, poisons, strangles and stabs operatic sopranos. An unknown vegetable provokes all who boil it.

At various times, Mr. Gorey’s alter ego, played by Kevin McDermott, appears from tombstones and tubes of Gothic ointments with a bald head and the wild, piercing eyes of Rasputin to ask, “Who are these people?” and observe querulously, “It was already Thursday, but his lordship’s artificial limb could not be found.” Or maybe he’s the one who, after another hapless lunatic falls victim to merry mayhem, says, “Oh, dither.” I was so busy laughing, I lost track.

This lovely haunted house of a show coincides with the publication of The Strange Case of Edward Gorey , a witty and informative book by his friend and neighbor, the distinguished author Alexander Theroux, who suggests the author lived in a world of his own invention until the end. Fearful and suspicious of the new millennium, Mr. Gorey (who is pictured on the cover sealed inside a wooden box) died on April 15. In a farewell that would have suited him perfectly, Mr. Theroux writes, “his body was cremated and his ashes were strewn over the waters at Barnstable Harbor on a day overcast and gray and hammering with rain.” Accompanied, no doubt, by a vial of his favorite Q.R.V.

Five Notes From

Julie Andrews

Last week’s titanic all-star concert at City Center hosted by Julie Andrews was memorable, but the lovely lady did not sing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” with Michael Crawford, as reported in one press report. She sang only five notes the whole evening (on “The Rain in Spain”), but she sang them beautifully and the sold-out house went ballistic. I think her voice is strong and capable enough for more.

The evening’s theme was the great romantic love songs of Broadway. So why, I ask, still scratching my head, did Rebecca Luker sing “Too Late Now,” a marvelous ballad introduced by Jane Powell in the MGM musical Royal Wedding that was not from a Broadway show, and why was Chita Rivera knocking herself out on “How Lucky Can You Get” from the Streisand movie Funny Lady ? The show-stopping mugs from Kiss Me, Kate are always welcome to reprise “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” but if this is one of the great Broadway love songs, my name is Enrico Caruso. And it’s nice to mix the new with the tried-and-true, but I could have happily done without the caterwauling Adam Pascal from Aida .

Still, the arrangements by Don Sebesky, Peter Matz and Ralph Burns creatively reflected what lush romantic charts really mean to a love song, and the thrilling voice of Linda Eder socking “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “What Kind of Fool Am I” all the way out to the ships at sea sent the screaming mob into ecstasy. I have said all along that if this supersonic voice ever exploded on something worthier than the schmaltz written by her husband, Frank Wildhorn, she would be a star of unparalleled power and importance. Sort of a curious and sometimes misguided evening, but I can’t wait for the CD and the forthcoming PBS special to relive the highlights.

Bottoms Up, Tallulah! … World According to Gorey