Red Hot Mama Reviews

Unlucky in Her Loves, Lucky in Her Songs

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 Days."

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.

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). Review
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.

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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 well-crafted.

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 show beautifully.

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
CALL: 415-885-2800

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.