Stefanie Powers as Tallulah Bankhead in Looped (photo: courtesy Looped)
Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater hosts 'Looped' through May 5.
NOTE: The following story is adapted from an article in the May/June 2013 issue of Boston Spirit magazine.
By Loren King
When the curtain went up on the current tour of Looped, Matthew Lombardo’s comedy about Tallulah Bankhead, it was a bittersweet moment for all.
Valerie Harper, who earned a Tony nomination when she starred in Looped on Broadway in 2010, was in the middle of a rehearsal for the current tour when Lombardo and the play’s director, Rob Ruggiero, who had also directed Harper in the Broadway production, realized something was wrong.
“She just wasn’t herself. She was forgetting lines, and this was a role she’d played hundreds of times,” recalls Lombardo. “She went to the hospital the following day and three days later we all found out it was brain cancer. It’s always difficult to see someone you love go through this, but Val is handling it with grace and courage.”
Tickets had been sold and theaters booked — Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater hosts Looped April 30 to May 5 — so, with Harper’s unequivocal blessing, the show went on. Stefanie Powers, who had co-starred with Bankhead in the movie at the center of the play — 1965 camp classic Die! Die! My Darling! — stepped in to play Bankhead.
After two weeks of rehearsals, Powers, the Emmy-nominated star of the TV series Hart to Hart, opened in Looped in Fort Lauderdale at The Parker Playhouse. The show then moved on to Baltimore’s The Hippodrome Theatre. After the Boston run, the play opens in Hartford, Connecticut, at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts May 7-12. More cities will be announced for summer and fall 2013.
Looped centers on late-career Bankhead, right after the filming of Die! Die! My Darling! She’s called into a sound studio to re-record (or “loop”) one line of dialogue: “And so Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has in literal effect closed the church to me.” Die! Die! would be Bankhead’s last film. She died in December, 1968.
“She was drunk, coked-up, belligerent and it took all day,” says Lombardo who’d been privy to a cassette tape of the looping session. It was recorded by one of Bankhead’s “caddies” — the many gay men who tended to her.
“I listened to the tape and it was hysterical but then it became sad. She’d become a caricature,” says Lombardo. In writing Looped, Lombardo decided “not to soften her up at all. I used maybe four or five original quotes” from Bankhead whose bon mots are legendary. “It also allowed me to test my wit to see if I could top her,” he says.
In the film, the 19-year-old Powers played Patricia, the former fiancée of Stephen, the demented Mrs. Trefoile’s dead son. Powers remained in touch with Bankhead long after they made the movie and often visited her in New York. “She has [Bankhead’s] voice down. Not even just the words, but the non-verbal subtleties,” says Lombardo. In the film, Mrs. Trefoile makes Patricia take off her red lipstick. “Stef says when she visited her, the first thing Tallulah would do was pin her on the couch and put red lipstick on her,” laughs Lombardo.
Lombardo, who’s also the producer of Looped, is no stranger to larger-than-life female characters. His Tea at Five earned Kate Mulgrew rave reviews for recreating Katharine Hepburn at two stages of her life. In High, Kathleen Turner played a tough-talking nun, Sister Jamison Connelly, who agrees to sponsor a 19-year-old gay drug user and hustler to help him battle his drug addiction. Both plays had successful runs in Boston.
“Boston is a tough audience but it’s always been good to me,” Lombardo says.
The spirit of Harper remains with the cast and crew of Looped, says its author. When Harper first dropped out of the play due to her cancer, Lombardo says his heart was no longer in it. He went to visit Harper in the hospital. “She said ‘No, I don’t want tears. Enjoy me while I’m here.’ She’s a huge fan of the show; she didn’t want it to fold. She gave us a wonderful gift. She is with us in every city and onstage with us every night.”
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