Four-time Tony and two-time Emmy nominated star Tovah Feldshuh hits the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) stage with her latest cabaret act, Tovah Is Leona! on September 15. You won’t want to miss indicted real estate tycoon Leona “Queen of Mean” Helmsley’s return from Purgatory—through Feldshuh’s brilliant portrayal—to plead her case and sing a few show tunes. She only gets one hour to earn a ticket to Heaven, so there had better be enough evidence in her songs to acquit her, otherwise she’ll be forced to cease and desist, or rather be deceased and desist. “It’s all about real estate, so I hope all the realtors, developers and contractors will be there to learn about how this one real estate expert thrived, and then really screwed up,” Feldshuh says.
Last year, the Quogue actress was offered a musical with 25 actors and a 30-piece orchestra called Queen of Mean, with book and lyrics by Alex Lippard and David Lee and music by Ron Passaro. Lippard had conceptualized the show with her in mind and was eager to get it on Broadway, but that’s no easy feat. Feldshuh had the brilliant foresight to fashion a standalone nightclub act as Leona using select songs from the score, mixed with American standards and a bit of rap to raise awareness and financial support for the larger production. She recruited Jeff Harnar as director and James Bassi as musical director, and the three of them created Tovah Is Leona! 54 Below debuted the cabaret act on its stage in July, and it was so successful it went on to Guild Hall in August and now WHBPAC. “I hope it makes it to Broadway in the foreseeable future, but in the meantime, I plan to take Tovah Is Leona! anywhere that people want to see it,” she remarks.
Feldshuh, as Leona, describes the show as being “caught between music and mercy, repertoire and redemption, cabaret and karma.” She continues, “I ask for a court room; they give me a theater. I ask for a stenographer; they give me a pianist. I ask for a jury; they give me an audience. I ask for a legal brief; they throw me the score of the new musical, Queen of Mean. I ask for a legal team; they give me a composer and a lyricist. I guess fate has decreed that this musical score will serve both as my legal brief and my special material.” In addition to Leona, Feldshuh also plays husband Harry Helmsley, Leona’s mother, two servants and Leona’s obedient Maltese, ironically named Trouble.
The romp takes the audience through Leona’s wild journey: much like Evita, Leona started with nothing and married into immense wealth and power, in the person of real estate giant Harry Helmsley. “Trump was a drop in the bucket next to Helmsley,” Feldshuh quips. Prior to meeting Helmsely, Leona had already climbed the ranks from receptionist to vice president at the firm Pease & Elliman. After meeting Leona on the dance floor, Helmsley quickly brought her on as director of cooperative sales at the Helmsley-Spear subsidiary Brown, Harris, Stevens and later divorced his wife of three decades to marry her. They wed in 1972.
“Talent is the ability to hit a target nobody else can hit,” Feldshuh notes. “Genius is the ability to hit a target nobody else can see. Leona Helmsley had a genius for running a home and running a hotel.” It’s largely for this reason that she was known as the Queen of Mean. She would carefully inspect the Helmsley Hotels she supervised as president for any minute flaw that would cause it to fall short of her immensely high standards, firing any employee she felt couldn’t live up to those standards. While she’s remembered as being unfair and harsh, Feldshuh prefers to think that Leona simply “lost her patience over a lack of excellence…but boy, was it an effective dictatorship!” And she can testify from experience, “I had my 50th birthday party at the Helmsley Palace. It was impeccable, brilliantly run!” Although, she admits, “I’m not an advocate. My job isn’t to judge her; my job is just to be her.”
In 1992, Leona was convicted of evading $1.7 million in taxes and sentenced to four years in prison. She served less than half that time. According to Feldshuh, Leona always said, “My only crime was being Leona Helmsley…If you’re a woman in this world, you’d better duck. If I were a man I would’ve walked or been elected President.” When Leona died in 2007, she left Trouble a hefty inheritance of $12 million, although a judge would later roll her eyes and reduce this to $2 million. “We all make mistakes, but to what degree?,” Feldshuh wonders. “How are our errors interpreted and misinterpreted by other people? And how are we encapsulated in history?”
Feldshuh explains that, “Tovah Is Leona! is both a study of a person who didn’t understand certain, very important, boundaries and the love story of a person who fiercely loved a few things in her life.” Although, she adds, “I’m a big fan of humor, and I promise that the audience will not only learn, they will laugh. And I look forward to hearing their laughter at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.”
Born Leona Mindy Rosenthal, she changed her last name to Roberts after graduating high school to avoid the effects of rampant anti-Semitism at that time. As if destined to play this role, Feldshuh also changed her name at a young age, but for the opposite reason. She was born Terri Sue Feldshuh, but changed it at age 18 after Michael Fairchild, a young man she fell in love with, convinced her to go by her Hebrew name instead. “Tovah, now that’s a name,” she recalls him saying. At the time, she had no idea it would change the entire course of her artistic career, with many casting directors believing her to be a European Orthodox Jew (while she’s not, she holds great respect for her Jewish religion). This perception resulted in being handed roles—no auditions necessary—in Yentl, Holocaust, A Walk on the Moon and Kissing Jessica Stein.
“Acting is a lot cheaper than therapy,” Feldshuh jokes. “It really is great. You just become other people. Your job is to get inside their skin and inside their souls and show no distance between you, the actor, and the person you’re playing. If you’re any good at this, it’s as if the audience can mistake you for that person.” She’s taken a special liking to the role of Leona, “It’s so much fun to think about living in a 28-room mansion on acres and acres of land with two swimming pools, an indoor and an outdoor, and a marble rooftop dance floor with views of the Long Island Sound.”
Feldshuh holds the remarkable honor of performing the longest running one-woman Broadway show, Golda’s Balcony, which ran for 493 performances. She continues to act in William Gibson’s play, a retelling of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s life, at least three weeks each year in countries all over the world. “I’m thrilled to have been chosen to be a storyteller for the last 45 years of my life,” she remarks.
Recently, Feldshuh performed in a new play written by her brother, David Feldshuh, called Dancing with Giants, in which she portrayed a man for the first time in her nearly 50-year career. Her numerous Broadway credits include Sarava, Lend Me a Tenor, Pippin, Yentl and Irena’s Vow. She has also made several television appearances in such shows as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Flesh and Bone, Salvation and The Walking Dead.
When not onstage or in front of a camera, Feldshuh is likely exploring the world or swimming. A self-proclaimed “adventure traveler,” she tours far-off lands, including Mongolia, China, South Korea, Siberia, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Iceland, to ride horses, track gorillas or climb mountains—including Mount Kilimanjaro. To her, “it’s the same thing as being an actor, except you’re not on the stage: you’re learning; you’re taking in new information; you’re becoming Marco Polo.”
Feldshuh starts each day by stepping outside her Quogue home to swim a half-mile in her swimming pool, then heads to Abby Vakay’s Hamptons Yoga Healing Arts for a class. Afterward, she visits her friends on Dune Road for a refreshing swim in the “womb of the sea.” She explains, “My favorite thing is to get up and be near the water. I think we all came out of water; that’s where life began with that fabulous first fish with strong enough fins to walk on land. That first amphibian gave birth, genetically, to the beginning of life for us as Homo sapiens.”
“I’m a big fan of the community of the Hamptons,” Feldhshuh says. “I hope they will come share the history I’ve had as a performer in the Hamptons, as they have shared it with me in New York City and various cities around the United States.”
Curtain for Tovah Is Leona! is at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 15, approximately one hour after sunset, in respect for those observing Shabbat. Visit whbpac.org for tickets.