By Karen Isaacs
You may never have heard of Sophie Tucker, but the burlesque, vaudeville, stage, movie, radio and television performer was the prototype for the suggestive (and sometimes raunchy) humor of Mae West and more recently, Bette Midler in her early career.
Cabaret and Broadway performer Sharon McNight has created a show that features the songs and life of Sophie Tucker. Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story how has now made it to Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury where it plays through March 11. (Last year, the theater had a one man show about Anthony Newley that was terrific.)
Unfortunately this show doesn’t quite live up to that standard. Tucker grew up in Hartford and is buried there. She started singing there but moved on to New York and then toured in vaudeville (originally in blackface) before inventing her persona. She was part comedian and part singer.
Her choice of material – often comic and/or risqué – led to the “Last of the Red Hot Momma’s” name.
In the show, McNight adapts her voice to the raspy Tucker voice which, unfortunately, can become grating during the 90+ minute show. An intermission might have helped.
The play moves between Tucker in the 1950s and her younger self, as she tells us incidents from her life including her three marriages. This occurs between renditions of many songs associated with Tucker. These range from “Darktown Sturtter’s Ball,” to “Hula Lou,” to “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” and others. Of course, her signature song, “Some of These Days” is well represented.
Despite the talent of McNight – and her superficial resemblance to Tucker – the show is only partially successful. It suffers from the problems that afflict many one-person shows: how do you get additional information or people into it. McNight does it by both using the telephone and speaking to someone outside her dressing room door. It doesn’t really work. You’d like her to play another character.
The other issue for me is that Tucker’s music did not vary much – mostly she sang somewhat risqué songs – “He’s a Good Man to Have Around,” “Last of the Red Hot Mommas,” or humorous ones – “I Don’t Want to Get Thin.” Plus her voice can begin to sound monotonous.
Despite these qualms about the show, it does remind us of any earlier period in theater/vaudeville and one of the iconic performers.
McNight is backed up by a three piece group led by conductor/pianist and music director Brent C. Mauldin. In keeping with Tucker’s success and reputation, there are terrific, uncredited costumes that capture the various decades.
In addition to performing, McNight has also directed and written the piece. While she is talented enough to do that, sometimes another person can point out areas that might be improved.
Yet Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story can be good fun, particularly for those who may have some memories of her appearing on Ed Sullivan and other shows. It is at Seven Angels Theater, 1 Plank Rd., Waterbury. For tickets call 203-757-4676 or visit Seven Angels Theatre.