Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 1999

Vikki True is a really great singer. Starring her in a bio-revue of the life and music of Sophie Tucker seems like a really good idea. True and her voice resemble Tucker’s in many ways, and Tucker is highly under-appreciated by modern audiences. The idea really sounds golden.

Alas, True is so much better than the book, written by Sarah Blacher Cohen and Joanne Koch; and the wooden direction provided her by Mari Andrejco, that the evening ends up being nothing but a trip down memory lane for older theatre-goers.

Whenever True opens her mouth to sing the show gets exciting. But then the book inevitably comes tromping back in. Just let this woman sing! I vote that Vikki True gets to do a cabaret act of all of Tucker’s greatest hits, with just a little gentle patter, a joke or two, in between.

The sad thing is that this team has been at work on this show for four years now. You would think someone would have taken them aside and said, “Look, the book is too long. Its boring. Cut the words and add more of Tucker’s music.”

Sophie Tucker deserves a revival. Judging from the people in the audience who knew the words to her songs and who buzzed with excitment as soon as a favorite number was announced, there are lots of folks who remember her fondly.

Tucker was born in 1890 in the Jewish neighborhood of Hartford, CT. Her family owned a restaurant and she started out entertaining the customers to attract more business. Many of the clientle were actors from travelling Yiddish theatre troupes. Despite early marriage and motherhood, Tucker took off for New York City where, after some struggle, she made it big in burlesque (with her clothes on), vaudeville, and finally as a legitimate night club act. Making only one film in 1937, Tucker performed live and later on television until soon before her death in 1966.

Tucker was fiesty. She spoke and sang frankly about sex (even sex after 40!) in a time when women just didn’t do such things. She has been an inspiration to many other female performers – in the current generation notably Bette Midler. I think a one-woman show about Sophie Tucker would be a great companion piece to Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, which is playing just down the road at Shakespeare & Company. While Woolf was sitting in ladies’ colleges in Britain lecturing about independence, Tucker was already a big star living (and paying for) an independent life here in the States.

If only this was the show! Vikki True is certainly the performer to do it. Where’s a good show doctor when you need one?

“Sophie Tucker: Red Hot Mama” is running through July 11 at the Center Theatre at the National Music Center, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs just under two hours with one intermission. Call the box office at 413-637-4718 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999

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