Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2002
The last time I saw an (almost) one woman show about Sophie Tucker, I wrote the following: “Whenever [the star] 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 [the star] 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.” Well, somebody up there heard me, but they sent along the show I voted for with Kathie Halenda as Tucker. What a good idea!
I started going regularly to the Mac-Haydn just after Halenda had made her mark as a local celebrity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, starring in Hello, Dolly, They’re Playing Our Song, and Annie Get Your Gun, as well as assaying star turns as Mama Rose in Gypsy, Miss Mona in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Miss Hannigan in Annie, and the voice of the lethal plant, Audrey II, in Little Shop of Horrors. Just that list of roles alone ought to give you a pretty clear picture of Halenda. She is not a blushing ingénue. She is a great big gal with a great big voice – in other words the very embodiment of Sophie Tucker.
Legendary American entertainer Sophie Tucker (1884-1966) was a star for six decades of the twentieth century. She starred on Broadway, in vaudeville, cabaret, burlesque, television, and was an important recording artist. After seeing Halenda’s show, I was set to pondering why the more successful and less controversial Tucker is relatively unknown today when her doppelganger, Mae West (1893-1980), looms so large in the modern consciousness. (Not that Mae isn’t cheering from the bleachers of whatever after-life bawdy broads go to.) And I also pondered why Tucker was considered less controversial than West. If what Halenda performed was an accurate recreation of Tucker’s stage show then Tucker was actually racier and more risqué than West. And yet West was jailed for her “red hot mama” act and Tucker was not.
But the vagaries of historical public taste aside, Sophie Tucker was a dynamo and she is undoubtedly sitting in those bleachers with Mae West applauding Kathie Halenda for carrying on the grand tradition. Halenda looks spectacular in an ornate red sequined number for Act I and an even more gorgeous royal blue velvet for Act II, and she belts out Tucker’s hits in rapid fire succession in her brassy but beautiful voice. She is ably accompanied by pianist Michael Sebastian, who has accompanied the likes of Bernadette Peters and Johnny Mathis. Sebastian gamely dons a body mike, indulges in some patter with Halenda, and even wears a red beret and a sailor hat with aplomb without missing a note.
Halenda performs Tuckers standards A Good Man Is Hard to Find, You’ve Got to See Your Mama, There’ll Be Some Changes Made, Living Alone and I Like It, and, of course, her trademark song, Some of These Days. In between these wonderful songs the “gentle patter” and “a joke or two” that I voted for back in 1999 take place. They are just right. If you want a biography of Sophie Tucker, go to the public library. This is professional quality cabaret entertainment that you usually don’t get out here in the sticks. Go and enjoy it.
This is a show for mature audiences. By this I mean that Sophie Tucker was a grown woman and proud of it. Her songs and jokes were about the state of womanly maturity – its joys and frustrations. You can hear more smutty bathroom humor on your average sit-com than you will meet on the Mac-Haydn stage, but you will enjoy this show more if you have a few years under your belt. If I had brought my 13-year-old son Brandon, he would have laughed heartily, but he also would have been embarrassed that a woman his mother’s age and size was talking and singing about such things, and he would have been mortified that I enjoyed it! So feel free to bring your teens, but leave the little kids at home. Let this be parents (or grandparents) night out!
Sophie Tucker: Last of the Red Hot Mamas runs through August 4 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs an hour and 50 minutes with one intermission. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002