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BWW Review: Tovah Feldshuh Means Business as LEONA! at Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: Tovah Feldshuh Means Business as LEONA! at Feinstein's/54 Below
Tovah Feldshuh in a preview performance of TOVAH IS LEONA! at Feinstein's/54 Below.
Photos: Jennifer Broski

"Dead 11 years, and I can still nail a middle C."

Leona Helmsley shuffled back to this mortal coil for one night only---three, actually---and, as portrayed by Tovah Feldshuh, she's lost none of her bite in those intervening years. From the start, Feldshuh's Leona narrowed her eyes into a hard stare that would put Paddington to shame, never letting up for a moment.

With TOVAH IS LEONA!, "Leona" was making her cabaret debut at Feinstein's/54 Below---or, as she not-so-lovingly dubbed it, "Feinstein's cellar"---in an effort to set the record straight on everything from that unflattering "Queen of Mean" moniker to her prison stint for tax evasion, all in a bid to get out of purgatory. After all, it's all about location, location, location.

From the back of the room, the four-time Tony nominee snaked her way through the crowd at the July 6 performance. Asking an audience member if he was a lawyer, and when he demurred, she groaned, "Shit!" Opening the proceedings with a snippet of "It's Today" from MAME (Jerry Herman), she dove into the first of night's originals, "On Top of the World" (Ron Passaro/David Lee/Alex Lippard), from the upcoming Leona Helmsley musical, aptly titled THE QUEEN OF MEAN, based on Ransdell Pierson's unauthorized biography. "I haven't heard this much applause since my funeral," she cracked afterward.

At the start, the show was a bit overstuffed with expositional details, given its condensed running time. Feldshuh quickly weaved through decades of the mogul's past, covering her childhood, her first two marriages, and her rising through the ranks of the real estate world at warp speed.

But once Leona had filled in the backstory, the real fun began. For starters, she had a ball singing "Real Estate" and "Listings" (Passaro/Lee/Lippard), accompanied by musical director James Bassi on piano. Sharing a bluesy repartee, Bassi teed up less-than-ideal living situations and Leona responded in turn with her famous spin, from cracks in the walls providing "plenty of light" to roaches that "only come out at night."

Saying Feldshuh never broke wouldn't be entirely correct; she never broke characters. At a few key moments, she seamlessly adopted other roles, from ex-staffers who gave damning testimony against her to the love of her life: Harry Helmsley. Without leaving the stage, she transformed for "The Helmsley Way," sporting Harry's glasses and robe as she sang about the family's, shall we say, creative business tactics. With the number, Feldshuh was able to cut loose, showing off a level of intensity and charm that contrasted nicely with Leona's reserved demeanor.

BWW Review: Tovah Feldshuh Means Business as LEONA! at Feinstein's/54 Below
Feldshuh as Leona Helmsley

Throughout the night, Bassi gamely sighed along at Leona's various jabs, which frustratingly consisted mostly of nicknaming him "Jaipur" or "Jakarta." Too often, the show trafficked in lazy stereotypes as a way to telegraph Leona's "Queen of Mean" status. Fortunately, it featured plenty of authentically clever barbs, too, including a solid running gag of Leona cutting supporting characters she'd only just introduced out of the show as both a cost-cutting and face-saving maneuver, turning a sisterly duet into a solo and silencing a disgruntled former employee. And, as barked by Feldshuh, "I BOUGHT a head voice" may be one of the funniest sentences ever uttered.

TOVAH IS LEONA! frequently employed well-chosen snippets of classic hits as preludes to original numbers, expertly setting the scene. With Dolly Parton's "9 to 5," the crowd began to join in, until she shouted, "9 to 5... is for amateurs," calling the whole thing off and talking about her own experience with workplace sexual misconduct. In particular, "When You're Good to Mama" (Kander & Ebb) from CHICAGO was brilliantly paired with "Mama's Comin'" (Passaro/Lee/Lippard). The original number perfectly conjured THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA vibes, as the Helmsley Palace staff was given their seven-minute warning about the boss's arrival.

As the entire evening was supposedly Leona's bid to make it through the pearly gates, she did give her best defense, best embodied in the musical's titular number, with lyrics penned by Jeff Harnar. "Perfection, I can't hide it/If there's a broom I'll ride it," she sang unapologetically. Invoking other complicated women in pop culture, she suggested that while she was imperfect, things would've likely been different had she been a man.

And not just any old man, either, as she soon jabbed, "If I was a man, I would've walked... or been elected president." Calling out double standards women face is absolutely fair, but real estate mogul or no, in terms of her own redemption, that's a tough sell. She may have said she wouldn't believe her rival, Donald Trump, "even if his tongue was notarized," but the enemy of your enemy does not always a friend make.

Fortunately, the show didn't spend too much time suggesting Helmsley was wrongly convicted in either the court of public opinion or the actual one.

Sure, the show was peppered with proof of her loyalty to those she cared for, like having Harry's food served on Helmsley Palace trays after his health declined and, of course, famously leaving $12 million to her prized pooch, Trouble. Ultimately, however, the show smartly left it up to audience members to make up their own judgments, honoring her unparalleled ambition with an energetic, crowd-pleasing closing medley, drawing inspiration from sources as varied as Donna Summer, FAME and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

Leona may not convince you to let her out of purgatory, but as the subject of a cabaret---and, if all goes well, a musical---she's captivating, particularly when captured by a performer as commanding as Feldshuh.

Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.

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