New Jersey Jewish News
Funny, Dolly, you dont look Irish
The sound of applause signaling the final curtain call for a recent matinee performance of Hello, Dolly! had barely died down when leading lady Tovah Feldshuh slipped into the anteroom near the Paper Mill Playhouses stage door to meet the press and her public. Face scrubbed clean of stage makeup, hair wrapped in a turban, the diminutive Feldshuh acknowledged everyone, one by one friends and relatives who live locally, a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor, a solemn little girl who wanted the stars autograph.
And me. Whisked backstage by the press manager, I joined Feldshuh who plays the indomitable Dolly Gallagher Levi in the Millburn theaters revival of the Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart musical at a rickety table amid curtains and ropes and began my between-shows interview. We talked about the challenges of taking on a role so closely associated with another star, Carol Channing, and Feldshuhs choice to play up the Irish background of the widowed matchmaker.
NJJN: What about the ghosts circling this production? Your own triumph in the one-woman show about Israels famous prime minister, Goldas Balcony, for which you won a Tony Award nomination, is mentioned in every review. Can you channel the spirit of a 19th-century Irish immigrant, Dolly Gallagher, with equal success?
FELDSHUH: Golda was the best role I ever had. Dolly was the best job I ever had. I wont get a Tony nomination this is not a New York theater but I play it on stage with 29 fantastic actors, enjoying the support system at this fabulous theater. Its a lot less lonely.
NJJN: What about the bigger-than-life stars who have played Dolly since it opened on Broadway in 1964 like Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Mary Martin? Do you find these actresses a hard act to follow?
FELDSHUH: I would like to make sure my work is at the level of Tyne Daly in Gypsy. People are surprised I took this work so seriously. It is great to follow Golda with Dolly. Its a change of palette. I love to be with people.
Barbra [Streisand, who played the musical matchmaker in the 1969 famously awful film version] is so gifted, so beyond belief. I blame [director] Gene Kelly. She was only 26, playing opposite the much older Walter Matthau. They let her do what she wanted. My director here [in comparison] will have notes for me later.
NJJN: How does being Jewish affect the way you play this role and how people respond to you in this role?
FELDSHUH: The biggest trap is to play Dolly as a Jew. Only Carol Channing a Christian Scientist married to a Jew can afford to do that. I think the critics are raving that I am allegiant to [Dollys] Irish roots and delighted that I am.
As a Jew, I feel a kinship with Dolly. As Jews have suffered, so did Dolly. She had the potato famine and the English to contend with [in her past]. I have a loving heart toward my religion. Im an American Jew like you lucky. You have to be comfortable in your own skin to relinquish yourself into another.
NJJN: When Dolly cites her late husband Ephraims advice that money must be spread around people like rainwater, shes really talking about tzedaka, isnt she?
FELDSHUH: Dolly is heavy into tikun olam [repairing world]. She just doesnt know it.
My brother and others are at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital now where my mother who is 95 just had an aortic valve replacement, the first ever done on anyone her age. Its amazing the way God works.
(Theres a break from the interview as we two talk about the surgery. Then, always the professional, she makes sure to tell me what she wants included in this article her future plans on and off Broadway.)
FELDSHUH: Id love to take this Dolly around the country and bring it to Broadway if not this fall, then by summer 2007.
And Im appearing in a production called Mining Golda [telling the full story of Tovahs transformation into Golda for her one-woman show, Goldas Balcony], which will open in Africa in September. It will include excerpts from my diary. We will have a one-night prep at Lorenzos in Staten Island on Aug. 19 before we take it to Africa. Tell people this is the last time anyone will be able to see me perform so cheaply (said with a chuckle).
In her surprisingly deep, almost gravelly voice, she announced the interview over. I knew the stage manager had issued a cast call for 7 p.m. and Feldshuh would do another high-energy, exuberant performance in less than two hours. Performers and stage crew had already exited for local pizza shops, Feldshuh went back to the stage door to join a friend, and I retrieved my car and went home.
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