|THEATER REVIEW | 'RED HOT MAMA' May 31,
Unlucky in Her Loves, Lucky in Her Songs
By LAWRENCE VAN GELDER
To be wowed by Sophie Tucker, maybe you had to be around in 1906, when she
broke into show business in a movie theater on 116th Street and Lexington
Avenue, singing show after show after show for $20 a week while the
projectionist rewound the reels. Or maybe in 1909 when she was a Ziegfeld
girl. Or maybe in that more inhibited era when she could get herself
arrested for a bit of a suggestive wiggle and naughty songs like "There's
Company in the Parlor, Girls, Come on Down," which enabled her to claim the
title Last of the Red Hot Mamas.
But the appeal of Tucker (1884-1966) was difficult to fathom toward the end
of her career. In what lingers in memory as a ceaseless sequence of farewell
television appearances, she seemed to be the self-pitying chief mourner at
her own impending funeral, forever singing "Some of These Days" with its
lyrics reminding her audience that "you're going to miss me when I'm gone."
She came across as - and was - a tough old survivor, and that defiant
toughness, stated at the outset, proves a mixed blessing to Sharon McNight's
performance as Tucker in her one-woman show, "Red Hot Mama." As the closing
attraction of the 33rd season of the York Theater Company, through June 9 in
the Theater at St. Peter's, this song-studded biographical journey through
Tucker's life, backed by a three-piece band, is more to be savored for the
crowd-pleasing riches of its musical material than for the bitter,
unlucky-in-love woman portrayed by Ms. McNight.
The actress, who has been working her way toward a Tucker show for more than
20 years, has posed herself a formidable challenge. On one level she is
faced with playing a difficult, even unlikable woman. On the other level,
she has to entertain her audience. Ms. McNight seems to overdo the toughness
and undercut the possibility of charisma and charm when her mouth - in many
songs - twists to the left in a distracting, Cagneyesque snarl.
But set against modest scenery suggesting the nightclubs and dressing rooms
where bits of Tucker's life story are narrated and enacted, the songs - more
than 20 - are a pleasure. "Red Hot Mama" delivers everything from "After
You've Gone" to "The Darktown Strutters' Ball," "I Ain't Got Nobody," "It
All Depends on You" and "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie," as well as the
huge Tucker hit "My Yiddishe Momme" and, yes, of course, "Some of These
In the intimate theater, the audience shares in the fun on several occasions
when lyrics flashed on a screen afford the opportunity for a good
old-fashioned singalong. As Tucker herself observed, and as "Red Hot Mama"
reconfirms, she couldn't keep a husband, but she could hold an audience.
RED HOT MAMA
Featuring the songs of Sophie Tucker, conceived by Sharon McNight; music
director, Louis Goldberg; directed by Jay Berkow; sets by Mary Houston;
costumes by Patti Whitelock; lighting by Mary Jo Dondlinger; musical
arrangements, Stan Freeman; production stage manager, Scott F. Dela Cruz.
Presented by the York Theater Company, James Morgan, artistic director;
Louis Chiodo, consulting managing director. At the Theater at St. Peter's
Lutheran Church, Lexington Avenue at 54th Street.
WITH: Sharon McNight (Sophie Tucker).
May 9, 2002
Red Hot Mama
Reviewed By: David Finkle
Sharon McNight, who's been wowing cabaret audiences for a couple of decades
now with a powerhouse voice and a presence to match, has always strongly
resembled vaudeville great Sophie Tucker. McNight is a full-figured blonde,
as Tucker was, and she has Tucker's ability to whack a bawdy song across the
footlights so that, when it lands, it's completely good-natured, even
lovable. McNight looks and behaves enough like Tucker to pass for her, which
is what she's been doing since she introduced The Sophie Tucker Songbook six
years ago, as part of an ASCAP showcase at the since-shuttered Rainbow &
Stars. Now she has expanded the boite item into a theater presentation she
calls Red Hot Mama. The idea, apparently, is to tell more of Tucker's story
by supplementing the biographical material she's been dispensing between
songs with revelatory scenes from the fabled performer’s life.
But if that's the idea, the execution doesn't do much to enhance the solid
routine that the usually shrewd McNight had already crafted; indeed, the
makeshift and sketchy vignettes she has interpolated have the opposite
effect. Though (luckily) there aren't many of these segments, they cheapen
and dilute McNight’s presentation. These moments include an opening look at
Tucker in her dressing room, reading notes from Eddie and Ida Cantor and
Groucho Marx; Tucker arriving in a different and substantially less
luxurious dressing room at the beginning of her music hall career; and
Tucker receiving a telegram with news of her mother's death.
If McNight really intends to show Tucker, born Sophie Abuza in 1884, as the
three-dimensional woman she was off-stage—as opposed to the lusty on-stage
character she developed over a 60-year career—she needs to do more than she
has done so far. If she intends these scenes merely as extended song intros
(e.g., the telegram scene is followed by an emotional rendition of "My
Yiddishe Mama"), then the add-ons are totally unnecessary. Just singing the
songs would have every bit as much impact.
But enough of the bad news, since it only applies to a very small percentage
of what happens on stage. McNight still spends most of her spotlit time
wonderfully impersonating the audience-savvy Tucker, who always carried a
handkerchief to wipe the sweat (never flop sweat!) away from her fleshy
face; who could work a room until it melted at her feet; who starred in Cole
Porter's Leave It to Me and sang "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love" to a
fare-thee-well; who made standards out of "After You've Gone" and "Some of
These Days"; who packed the Latin Quarter whenever she dropped in; the one
who cleared the way for comediennes as diverse as Belle Barth and Roseanne.
McNight has to be too young to have seen Tucker in person, but she gets all
the mannerisms. She's boisterous and offhand with the audience. (There is a
lot of by-play with the crowd, not to mention a certain amount of encouraged
singing along.) She does Tucker's assured gestures: the arms raised or
sweeping or pointing, the small but determined steps and easy way with
simple choreography. She laughs the hearty laugh that accompanied Tucker's
enjoyment of her own liberal, not to say libertine, manner. In fact, she has
channeled Tucker so well that the show's ad libs (and there are probably
fewer than it may seem) sound completely authentic.
During the 90-minute program, McNight performs close to two dozen songs with
gusto. Many of these are familiar, including two numbers from Tucker's film
Honky Tonk. There is also a moving rendition of "The Man I Love." McNight
doesn't dwell on the naughtier material but does give an amusing accounting
of "Myron," in which a woman laments her husband's loss of "desirin'." What
McNight totally avoids is the telling of vulgar jokes in which Bette Midler
indulges when appropriating, as she has often done, the Tucker persona;
McNight keeps to safe innuendoes, like the remark she makes about the
supposedly fake fur that she sports towards the finale. (She also has Tucker
recall working with Mary Martin in 1938's Leave It to Me and giving the
young performer a tip on how to deliver innuendo.)
To help McNight fob off her perfectly fine nightclub act as something more
grandiose, set designer Mary Houston has divided the stage of the York
Theatre into three parts. The middle is where Tucker beneficently performs
in front of drummer Grace Millan, bassist Alex Walker and, at the piano,
Louis F. Goldberg, who stands in for longtime Tucker musical director Ted
Shapiro. At stage right and left, Houston has draped red velvet curtains
that are pulled back every once in a while to reveal the areas where McNight
indulges herself in those insubstantial scenes mentioned above.
Costume designer Patti Whitelock is responsible for the resplendent gowns
McNight wears, a few of which are elaborately beaded and look exactly like
what Tucker preferred when she was putting on the showbiz dog. Lighting
designer Mary Jo Dondlinger helps to keep the star looking properly bright
and brazen. Despite McNight's slight misstep in the dramaturgy department,
the hope remains that she won't get Tucker-ed out any time soon.
RED HOT MAMA
Red Hot Mama, Sharon McNight's tribute to the vaudeville star Sophie Tucker,
is a welcome addition to the NYC's current roster of musicals. In
autobiographical vignettes and in about two dozen songs, McNight brings
Tucker to life for an audience that mostly never had the chance to
experience her first-hand (the famed singer-comedienne died nearly forty
years ago). McNight's performance is tops, and the show itself, "recreating"
a '50s-era nightclub turn at the Latin Quarter with a few backstage
flashbacks comfortably worked in, is extremely entertaining and
Tucker's career—from beginnings in vaudeville at the turn of the last
century, through the Ziegfeld Follies, musical comedy, movies, TV, and
clubs—is recapitulated here, providing a basic biographical sketch of this
pioneering entertainer, whose early recordings were produced by Thomas
Edison (!) and who anticipated Mae West, Bette Midler and everyone in
between. McNight wisely lets the songs—including a good deal of special
material crafted for Tucker by her longtime collaborator Jack Yellen—fill in
the details. The Tucker persona is conveyed in sassy, suggestive ditties
like "I'm Living Alone (and like it)," "I Don't Want to Get Thin," and the
signature number "Last of the Red Hot Mamas." The troubled romantic life
that plagued the star offstage is suggested in "If Your Kisses Can't Hold
the Man You Love (Then Your Tears Won't Bring Him Back)," "I Ain't Got
Nobody," and, surprisingly, another signature piece, "Some of These Days."
Tucker's ability to sell a comic lyric is generously recreated in Cole
Porter's "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love" and in Yellen and Dan Dougherty's
"Myron," a broad, rather risqué blues parody about an unsatisfactory lover.
McNight puts these and the rest of the numbers over with real gusto and,
where required, heart-tugging emotion; she's a bona fide musical comedy pro
and her unmiked voice is a treat to hear.
Other songs, for the record, include standards like "After You've Gone," "Ain't
She Sweet," and "The Man I Love." During McNight's costume changes, music
director Louis Goldberg (in character as Tucker's accompanist Ted Shapiro)
leads the audience in old-fashioned sing-a-longs that fit the spirit of the
Patti Whitelock has provided McNight with an appropriately showy wardrobe.
The simple set by Mary Houston, depicting a couple of dressing rooms plus
the Latin Quarter stage, is effective, as is Mary Jo Dondlinger's lighting.
(reviewed on May 7, 2002)
Published Thursday, September 7, 2000
McKnight captures the essence of Tucker
WHAT: "The Sophie Tucker Songbook, " featuring Sharon McKnight
WHERE: The Plush Room, 940 Sutter St., San Francisco
WHEN: 8 p.m. through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $25 with a two-drink minimum
There she stands, blond, broad and thrice married, daring you to find a soft
spot in a soul hardened by split weeks in nowhere and 20-show-a-day gigs in
silent movie houses. If Jimmy Cagney had a sister, it'd be her.
And then she opens her mouth and her songs tear your heart out. Sophie
Tucker did it her way long before the world ever heard of Sinatra, and
Sharon McKnight manages to capture the star midway through a 60-year career
that meandered from the Ziegfeld Follies to "The Ed Sullivan Show."
More amazing, though, is the way McKnight is not only able to become Tucker,
but also manages to conjure the bustling Broadway, Tin Pan Alley era that
was her heyday. There are times when you swear you're seeing something
directly out of 1935 on the Plush Room's small stage.
Her Tucker show, something she's done for about five years, and fresh from a
six-month run (in a slightly longer version) at the Denver Center for the
Performing Arts, is an astounding piece of solo showmanship that takes
cabaret into the deeper waters of theater, yet manages to retain the
intimacy and razzle-dazzle of a nightclub act.
While Sophie Tucker isn't particularly front page news anymore, McKnight's
performance is far more than a museum piece, even though it works so
terribly hard at placing the act in its proper place in time. In fact,
that's why the show is so tremendously effective.
You look at what Tucker did on stage, and all of a sudden you have a clearer
understanding of Streisand and Bette Midler, Madonna and Liz Phair and all
the other sexually edgy divas who followed her on stage (OK, give Mae West
an assist, but both were archetypes of the form). You understand the sheer
force of personality, and how it built legends in a time before mass media
hype. You see something really quite incredible, since, along with the magic
and dazzling personality of Tucker, you see her theatrical excesses, and the
hokiness that was so much a part of entertainment in her day.
While it is abundantly clear Tucker understands everything that is written
between the lines, every innuendo, every double entendre and off-color
misinterpretation, there is also a guilelessness to her performance, a
certain cloying emotion that appealed to audiences of the '20s and '30s,
that allowed, for example, an uncomfortably sentimental tune like "My
Yiddish Momme" to become such an enormous hit for her.
As she has structured the act, McKnight paints a compelling picture of
Tucker. The show is primarily a late-career Tucker nightclub performance,
interspersed with scenes from various points in her life. McKnight moves
skillfully through the various transitions, using small props, such as a
telephone or minor costume changes that are effective in creating a
particular emotion or time period.
And even though this is a somewhat shorter version of her full theatrical
piece, you get a fairly complete look at Tucker and the music that so well
defined her era. The songs are tremendously entertaining, since they portray
the attitudes of an America of 70 or 80 years ago, but also because they
contain such enchanting word play in their lyrics. You get the strong
impression that people like Tucker, who was born in Russia, and the
songwriters, many of whom were immigrants or children of immigrants, still
found considerable novelty in the English language, and this playfulness
showed in their work.
But the bottom line is McKnight is one terrific entertainer who has found
herself an excellent subject for her one-woman show.
The combination is delightful and should not be missed.