Stage, TV and film actor, singer and playwright Tovah Feldshuh is coming Bristol Riverside Theatre to take on the role of Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” the quintessential story of a stage mother trying to guide her daughters, Baby June and Louise, to fame and fortune, Dec. 6-Jan. 15.
Feldshuh has amassed an impressive body of work during her career, appearing in numerous Broadway and one-woman shows and cabarets, as well as on TV shows such as “Law & Order” and films “Lady in the Water,” “The Idolmaker” and “Kissing Jessica Stein.”
Even with all that experience, Feldshuh is conscious of the fact that she is taking on a role in “Gypsy” that has been performed by acclaimed actresses Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daily, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone.
“It’s one of the greatest roles ever written for a woman in musical theater,” she said. “It’s a role with subtext and one of the first of its kind with enormous subtext and conflict. There’s a lot of space in the role for interpretations. But Merman branded it in such a very strong way that the role is thought of one way. But there are many different facets of Rose and I hope to find all of her voices: the playful, the flirtatious, the humorous, the charming. She uses different tones when she speaks to different people asking for different things under different circumstances, just like you and I. Though Merman was a genius, she branded that character in a monochromatic way.”
Feldshuh added that past portrayals of Rose have painted her as unsympathetic, but she doesn’t see her that way.
“We all know that Rose is strong but she’s not strong because she’s so willful,” Feldshuh said. “She was strong because she had to be. In my point of view, she had to be because she was abandoned. Her mother left her, her little girl. She started performing at the lodges to spend some time with her daddy. She was only a little older than Baby June when her mother left. She’s not a monster. She may steamroll over people but she doesn’t realize she’s doing it. She does it out of her own set of needs. I remember writing on my script: ‘Rose is strong. So is Gen. Patton but he didn’t yell all of his orders.’ Rose is highly optimistic and visionary, just like Gen. Patton.”
The quest for fame is a story as old as drama itself. But with the popularity of reality TV and professional sports, more people like Mama Rose are angling to get their children into the spotlight, making a story like “Gypsy” relevant to the times. That line of thinking isn’t lost on Feldshuh.
“I think having a parent who places all their dreams in a child is a very difficult thing and, often, unless in very careful hands, a dangerous thing,” she said. “We thought Tiger Woods had it all. This extraordinary father trained this extraordinarily brilliant golf player and then whatever. He couldn’t keep his zipper zipped. Power and eros are not strange bedfellows. Rose desperately wanted to get her children out of the mundane drudgery that was her life and wanted to get them out of the pattern that Rose herself made. And after all, Rose did get June and Gypsy Rose Lee out of their mundane lives. She fulfilled that vision for her daughters. Whether that brought happiness, that’s another question.”
During the run of “Gypsy,” the Bristol Riverside Theater is partnering with the AIDS Fund to host an evening of Gay BINGO after the Dec. 18 matinee performance. Feldshuh will be on hand for the event, as she has been a long time supporter of LGBT and AIDS-related charities such as Equity Fights AIDS.
Feldshuh said she was aware of the impact of AIDS on the gay community at the beginning.
“I, like everybody in our profession, lost some beloved friends early on,” she said. “One of my friends is married to a blood specialist in San Francisco. It was 1982 and I was going down the American River with my husband and we stopped off to see some friends. And I asked this young man, his name was Dr. Charles Linger, how he was and he said, ‘I’m terrible. These young men are coming to me on Monday and they are dying on Friday of pneumonia. They are not responding to any medication and we have the medication for it.’
“It was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, when the ignorance and the fatalities were so enormous. We didn’t know what to do. So AIDS has touched everybody.”