By Myra Chanin
Like Barbra, Ellen and Oprah, Tovah enjoys first name recognition on Broadway and Bloomingdale’s and on Network and Cable TV. Nobody with decent culture creds ever asks, “Tovah who?” She’s a life force, equally Jewish and Shakespearean. If she and the Bard had ever met, The Merchant of Venice, might have been called The Bubba of the Rialto, and she would have replaced Portia’s Quality of Mercy speech with a dire warning for Portia to keep her inheritance away from that hot, gold-digging bum Bassanio who let his BFF Antonio hock a pound of his own flesh as collateral for a bridge, actually a bride loan, to tide that scrounger over till Portia said, “I do,” and gave him her father’s all.
Tovah’s portrayal of Israeli Prime minister Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony, became the longest-running one-woman play in Broadway history. She also played Gypsy’s Mama Rose and the trapeze-swinging Granny in Pippin. More recent TV roles as politician Deanna Monroe in The Walking Dead led to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend where her anthem to motherhood, “Where’s the bathroom?” got 500,000 YouTube hits and led to her being elected US Madame President Pauline Mackenzie on CBS’s Salvation.
Tovah considers cabaret an ideal medium because she can create what she will perform. Tovah: Out of Her Mind, and Aging is Optional continue to entertain fans and turn perfect strangers into instant aficionados. Imperfect strangers take longer to seduce.
No matchmaker was required to put Tovah and Leona Helmsley on the same page or stage. The boys – composer Ron Passaro, lyricist David Lee and dramatist Alex Lippard told her, President-Shmesident, she deserved to play a queen. Tovah liked what she read, had a week-end open, and thought it would be fun to turn her future musical into an hour of sizzling cabaret. Her Director Jeff Harnar and Music Director James Bassi rose to the challenge. They blended Tovah’s ideas, her Tiffany watch, “beckoning diamonds,” her own original Chanel frock with a Leona Helmsley wig and a slapdash crown, the kind worn by royalty when greeting commoners.
Was Tovah Is Leona! a hit? You tell me. It sold out Broadway’s most elegant supper club, Feinstein’s/54Below, for three nights in a row. In the cabaret version, Leona finds herself at the crossroads of karma and cabaret, released from purgatory for an hour to set the record straight. Leona feels at home at 54Below because the former owners were sent to the slammer for the same crime as hers – income tax evasion.
Tovah’s Leona is a hard-working ambitious gal, working her way up via three marriages (two to the same shlimazel). Then she finds her true loves, selling real estate and Harry Helmsley, who, when they met, was married to someone else. What about Leona did Tovah find endearing? “She was charismatic, had a great sense of humor. She was a hard worker – the first one fully dressed in her office every morning and she didn’t leave until a deal was done. She was tremendously loyal to her fourth husband, her son and her dog, in that order.” What problems? did playing Leona present to Tovah? “I can imitate her voice, but I didn’t know how to handle the consonants she always dropped. “
Tovah burst out singing “It’s Today!” a Jerry Herman superhit from Mame, before segueing into “On Top of the World,” hopefully a future hit from the Queen of Mean. The song list of Broadway hits, “On Broadway”, “We Are Family,” “I’m Just Wild about Harry,” “When You’re Good to Mama,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “The Party’s Over,” mingle with tunes from the Queen of Mean score, appealing melodies with strong rhythms. My favorite? “Real Estate” with a steady beat and clever lyrics.
If you want to improve your financial condition
And you expect a colossal commission
Carve out a plot on the road to perdition
Real estate, real estate.
In her first verbal interaction with the audience, Leona leans forward and asks in a whisper, “Did you pay for your cover?” She already knows the answer. “Only little people pay for their cover.” Among her memorable responses is “The Palace Hotel was the only palace where the queen stood guard.” When a photographer asked if she was comfortable, she replied, “I make a living.”
Next appearance of Tovah as Leona? August 11, 2018 at East Hampton’s Guild Hall. It’s a very enjoyable way to spend an evening.
Photos: Maryann Lopinto