For an actress whose career mantra has been "Let Me Entertain You," Tovah Feldshuh has found audiences eager to agree, letting her into their homes and hearts through acclaimed TV portrayals (Helena Slomova, Holocaust; Danielle Melnick, Law & Order), films (Kissing Jessica Stein) and a bounty of bravura Broadway shows.
Indeed, from Golda Meir of Golda's Balcony to the torture chamber that Polish Catholic Holocaust heroine Irena Gut endured in Irena's Vow, the actress born Terri Sue Feldshuh in 1952 has done Broadway her way to many accolades.
Now comes the mother of all mother roles in what may be the quintessential Broadway musical, Gypsy. Ethel Merman had the brass of a bull's eye target imprinted on the part of Rose, but she was not alone. Others have wrapped that mealy fur around their necks and stormed off with their own interpretations of the tempestuous relationship between Rose and her burlesque star of a daughter since Gypsy first stripped the ceiling paint off the Broadway season in 1959.
Now, it's Tovah's turn.
The acclaimed actress prone to powerhouse roles has her inner Energizer Bunny at the ever-ready: She opens as the big Mama on Dec. 8 in a production possibly pointed beyond the Bristol Riverside Theater (www.brtstage.org
), where everything is coming up roses in the thorn-filled world of that most savage -- and savviest -- stage mother ever to cross the boards.
And no one crosses Mama Rose.
Diminutive yet dynamic, with a towering inferno of firepower fueling her emotional stature, Feldshuh felt the cosmic calling of this role years ago when it first brought out the gypsy in her. "She's been on my 'bucket list,' " concedes the actress of the to-die-for role she's coveted for quite a while.
Tovah was as good as "Golda"
"That and Saint Joan."
A saint Rose ain't. But she is a hellion with a sinfully rich world to explore. And for a woman who once portrayed an innocent yeshiva boy -- Feldshuh premiered on Broadway as the title star of I.B. Singer's Yentl, which played Philadelphia prior to its 1975 Great White Way opening -- the opportunity to find the blackness of soul and the shards of light trying to escape from the real Rose's roiled life was irresistible.
But to step into the shoes that Merman once wore as stylized stilettos to kick her way out of poverty through her daughter's ecdysiast escapes? "As extraordinary as Merman was, her acting could hardly be called nuanced," says Feldshuh, whose acting has been called just that.
"But make no mistake; I'm a big Merman worshipper. She changed the face of singing on Broadway forever."
Some people might shy away from comparisons; Feldshuh is not some people. "I hope to bring a specificity to the relationships" that Rose shares with her daughters, Louise/Gypsy and Baby June, as well as her much-harried husband-hopeful, Herbie.
In the small world that is Rose's world, some actresses have made great imprints on the part in the play based on Gypsy Rose Lee's 1957 memoirs; Tyne Daly, Patti LuPone and Angela Lansbury had their own regal rich turns, crowning glories at what has been called the King Lear of female roles. "But every person is inventive in different ways," says Feldshuh, whose research on the times and tides of Rose and her relationships fills a three-ring binder of the three-ring circus that was her life.
But is Feldshuh's Rose a Jewish one? "She ain't that!" exclaims Feldshuh with a laugh, well-known for a plethora of Jewish-focused parts, a number of which have shown up on stage during the actress' seven theatrical visits to Philadelphia.
Still, she acknowledges, peel off the geniuses behind Gypsy and find a history of Jewish men associated with creating the musical, featuring the music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents.
Jewish influence? "You tell me," Feldshuh says with a laugh.
All told, Rose, adds Feldshuh, is no different from other mothers, Jewish or not, who want the best for their children -- albeit Rose's efforts took some twisted and torturous turns.
As for her own values, Feldshuh has only to turn to her own mother, Lillian, as a source of strength, helping give shape to Feldshuh's own sense and sensibility -- which includes a successful marriage of close to 40 years, and two children, all grown up to successful careers.
They are her prizes, but not the only ones: For her mantle, Feldshuh, whose most recent one-woman show is Aging Is Optional, has earned awards beyond the arts, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award, the Myrtle Wreath of Hadassah and the Israel Peace Medal.
After all is said and done -- and applause appreciated -- it's Lillian Feldshuh's turn. "All those values -- maybe considered by some boring and predictable -- carried me through life," she says of what her mom gave her.
And still does. At 101, Lillian's no stage mother, adds the actress she raised (along with late husband/father Sidney), but a mom who played the most important role of all: a nurturer helping Tovah parse life's script, knowing how to put its drama and comedy into perspective.
No gimmicks required.