BWW Review: Tovah Feldshuh is Timeless in AGING IS OPTIONAL at 54 Below
There are words invented to describe people like Tovah Feldshuh. Incomparable. Inimitable. Formidable. Inestimable. All of these words are used to describe someone who is the best at what they do. Those with a propensity for more casual vernacular might stick to words like awesome, fabulous, cool and fantastic. After spending 75 minutes last night at Feinstein's/54 Below seeing Ms. Feldshuh's new cabaret AGING IS OPTIONAL, it is the opinion of this writer that the word best used to describe Tovah Feldshuh is Actor.
Not only is Tovah Feldshuh one of the best actors that the art form and the community has (and has had for a while now) but she is one of the most joyful. To watch Tovah Feldshuh act is to see someone at their bliss. It is apparent, it is clear, it is palpable, it is visible: she just loves it SO much. During her show, Tovah discusses her children and her husband, and the physical manifestation of her love for them is evident, but it cannot be ignored that acting was Tovah Feldshuh's first true love and that she has nurtured that relationship so well that they resemble a revered show business couple like Lunt and Fontanne or Tandy and Cronyn, only this couple is Feldshuh and Acting. They go hand in hand, they feed one another, and they love each other - till death do them part.
And Feldshuh's audiences are the lucky recipients of the children they create.
Ms. Feldshuh has never stopped working, since her first day as an actor. She is always creating, and what she creates is always interesting to see. A member of the cabaret community since the '90s when Tovah: Crossovah! debuted, Feldshuh has always had an exemplary grasp on what makes a good cabaret show but, more specifically, what makes a good Tovah Feldshuh cabaret show. A consummate actress on stage, screen, and television, Tovah Feldshuh has also, always, been an outspoken advocate for the embracing of her Jewish heritage - it is as much a part of who she is and what she does as any other part of her life, and it informs every aspect of her work in one way or another. Never is it more apparent than in the writing of these incredibly personal, always entertaining, completely unique shows that she produces for her ever-growing (thanks to Youtube and My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) public of admirers, all of whom were mesmerized and satisfied by Aging Is Optional, which is best described as equal parts cabaret, one-act play, and Borscht Belt comedy routine.
Like the comedy and tragedy masks that adorn the walls of acting students and the base of the Drama Desk Award, Tovah Feldshuh presents a series of stories about her life and career, accompanied by perfectly mated songs and vignettes that illustrate that path. Though she first appears on the stage at 54 Below in her usual elegant beauty, she immediately doffs her silk jacket and pumps in favor of a series of costume pieces and props, tying back her hair, messing it up, running the length of the stage barefoot, prooving that there is no length to which she will not go to communicate, in every way, to the best of her considerable ability, each and every story that she brought to, lovingly, entertain. Her priority should be to her audience, but Ms. Feldshuh is not content to stop there, doubling down on her goals so that the story itself is served. Tovah Feldshuh's artistry is based on her determination to pay equal due to her tales and to her followers (indeed, she is rather like the Pied Piper of cabaret).
With her collection of props and costumes and Musical Director James Bassi by her side, Tovah takes no prisoners in her quest to entertain. Pursuant to the theme of staying young, Feldshuh calls upon songs by Dar Williams, Bob Dylan and the Disney film "Peter Pan" as bookends to this play in which her 103-year-old mother is represented by Carol King and her children by Maury Yeston, in hugely theatrical, yet quietly heartfelt mini-plays performed with character voices and the facial activity more expressive than the average person might imagine possible in a cabaret setting. When the subjects of Feldshuh's slice-of-life stories veer away from her kinfolk, she bestows upon her audience a series of vignettes that are masterful musical monologues (in some cases, spoken monologues) from colorful characters, not one of which requires an explanation because Feldshuh's proficiency is so abundant that the moment the next scene begins, she brings all the backstory into the picture with a performance that envelopes every ounce of her being, placing on full display the character's trajectory and intent. It is a Herculean task that Feldshuh has set for herself, this painstakingly crated work of art, and when the evening is over she does not appear to be, remotely, winded, a tribute to the guidance she has been given by her director, Jeff Harnar, who helped her to pace herself within the characters, the stories, and the emotions, the strongest of which seemed to be the sublime paean to her husband, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." It is not surprising that Tovah Feldshuh could or would put so intimate a moment on a stage because she has never had one secret from her audience - she is always willing to go the distance in the name of art. Aging Is Optional is more than a wonderland of expert storytelling - it is a glimpse inside the head and the heart of a great American actress - and the view there is gloriously resplendent. May the Lady and the view remain the New York show business institution that they are for a long time to come because aging may be optional but a world without a new Tovah Feldshuh show to see most definitely is not.
Aging Is Optional has one last show on February 8th at 7 pm. For information and tickets please visit the 54 Below website