Long before comedian Lisa Lampanelli dubbed herself “The Queen of Mean,” the title was held — though not embraced — by Leona Helmsley, who had her very own palace in the heart of Manhattan. Helmsley died in 2007, but she’s making a comeback with a Feinstein’s at the Nikko debut thanks to actor-singer Tovah Feldshuh.
“Leona is up for one hour from purgatory to set the record straight and to star in her own cabaret show, and a trial with the audience as her jury, to see whether she was really guilty of all these things she was accused of, and because she wants to get into heaven because that’s where Harry is,” says Feldshuh.
Harry Helmsley, who died in 1997, was husband to the flinty-eyed hotelier who ruled The Helmsley Palace (now The Lotte New York Palace) on Madison Avenue with a fixed smile and an iron fist. A seeming role model for Donald Trump — they were contemporaries if not peers in the 1980s — Leona was known for publicly berating staff, using her business to pay for personal expenses, stiffing contractors on their invoices, and evading taxes with seemingly reckless abandon.
In a small-world comeuppance, she was felled by a fraud indictment filed by then U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison. She served less than two.
Helmsley may be an odd choice to ground a cabaret evening, but Feldshuh, who has worked steadily on stage and screen for the over 40 years, is used to dealing with the undead after two seasons on the hit zombie-drama “The Walking Dead.”
“The writing in that show was so good,” she says, “and people were so dedicated to keeping it No. 1. We worked as if we were doing a feature every week. [Series star] Andrew Lincoln set the tone. He’s a serious artist. I had the time of my life.”
Some of the songs in “Tovah is Leona!” are from the musical “The Queen of Mean” by Ron Passaro, David Lee and Alex Lippard in development with Feldshuh in the lead. “I asked if I could take their score and fashion it into a nightclub act,” she says, “to help them, to be frank with you, and get it out into the universe.”
This rescheduled Feinstein’s engagement comes amid two plays (one with Feldshuh as Ruth Bader Ginsburg), more film work, and a book deal.
“I’ve never been busier in my life and I am thrilled,” she says with genuine glee. “I say to all the women in our universe, live! Give yourself to causes you believe in because that’s what you’ll be left with.”
IF YOU GO
Tovah is Leona!
Where: Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Tickets: $50 to $90