Some people wilt in the face of criticism. Others, like Tovah Feldshuh, use bracing advice as fuel.
In the early 1970s, Feldshuh spent two years at the Guthrie Theater as a McKnight Foundation fellow working under then-artistic director Michael Langham. As she tells it, she was mostly an understudy who could sing and dance. Langham did not believe she was cut out for a career in theater.
“ ‘Luv, I don’t think you’re ever going to be an actor, but you’re a very good entertainer,’ ” she recounted, imitating his English cadence. “I’ll never forget that. I stuck my flat little chest out and walked out of that room saying, ‘I’m gonna prove this guy wrong!’ ”
Within two years, she was a Broadway star, “with my name on the marquee of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.”
More than four decades later, the native New Yorker is back in the Twin Cities for what feels to her a bit like redemption. Feldshuh plays Joe Jacobs, a k a “Yussel the Muscle,” the colorfully entertaining Jewish-American manager of 1930s German boxer Max Schmeling, in the drama “Dancing With Giants.” It premieres Thursday at Illusion Theater in Minneapolis.
It’s another new thing for the stage and screen star, whose four Tony nominations include the tradition-defying title character of “Yentl” and strong-willed Israeli leader Golda Meir in “Golda’s Balcony.”
“I’ve played women who’ve had to disguise themselves as men — Yentl, Viola [in ‘Twelfth Night’], Golda Meir — but I’ve never played a man,” she said. “I’m exploring that for the first time and doing it as quickly as we can.” That exploration includes a weight-training regimen at nearby Life Time Fitness in Target Center, where she also swims daily.
The play, set during the rise of the Nazis, is about friendship across racial and cultural lines at a time of deepening polarization. Its historical characters include African-American boxing champion Joe Louis and Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda.
“Dancing With Giants” was written by Feldshuh’s big brother, David Feldshuh, a playwright, director and physician who also is staging it at the Illusion. He has deep Guthrie connections as well, having served as associate artistic director under Langham, and later penned “Miss Evers’ Boys,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992.
“Giants” was workshopped at the Illusion in summer 2015 under the title “Yussel the Muscle.” The new name speaks more to Yussel’s place in the historic moment, David Feldshuh said. Yussel was a little guy dealing with larger-than-life figures in Schmeling, Louis and Goebbels.
The story mirrors contemporary themes and personalities, some of which have been sharpened by recent events. The role of Goebbels, for example, stands out because his propaganda principles are being put in practice in the real world, the playwright said.
“I could never imagine that the very question of whether truth exists would become a viable question in our contemporary dialogue.”
The family connections in “Dancing With Giants” go beyond brother and sister. The show includes a song by David’s son Noah, a founding guitarist of the alt-rock band X Ambassadors. And his other son, Zach, contributed cartoons that will be projected onstage. The script also contains references that pay tribute to the Feldshuhs’ forebears.
Their father was a lawyer and dancer, their mother a comedian who passed away in 2014 at 103. “On her tombstone it says: ‘Chocolate and laughter daily,’ ” David said.
Her spirit of optimism, even in the face of horror, also animates Yussel, Tovah Feldshuh said. The tabloids loved to quote the fight manager, who was famous for two sayings: “We was robbed” (after Schmeling lost a fight) and “I should’ve stood in bed.”
“We’re talking very somberly about this, but this play is also about showmanship,” said Bonnie Morris, producing director at the Illusion. “This character is an entertainer, and to have [Tovah] play him, I think people are gonna be blown away.”
For her part, Feldshuh cops to being “a slut for laughs,” adding that she can find humor in almost anything. “I’m very often cast in dire plays, and without humor you’re sunk.”
As for Langham, who died in 2011, she said she holds no ill will. “Observing him set a standard for me to reach for,” she said. “Had he given me the roles I so desperately wanted, I might have never left Minnesota.”
Which would have denied her this sweet opportunity to come back.