Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story
By Sharon McNight
For tickets & schedule:
December 31, 2016 – January 29, 2017
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars
(January 6, 2017)
Sophie Tucker defied the expectations of her time, pursuing a theater career instead of staying at home to care for her son, attacking challenges and overcoming them, and taking the entertainment world by storm as a big, beautiful woman who was proud of it, a sentiment immortalized in I Don’t Want to Get Thin. She was unapologetically passionate, pouring her fiery personality into bawdy songs that shocked 20th century audiences. Tony award nominee Sharon McNight steps into those glittering and formidable shoes with an engaging one woman musical filled with dozens of classic Sophie Tucker songs, repartee with the audience, and vignettes set in various dressing rooms, recreated by scenic designer Wayne Hovey, including a run down theater scrawled with graffiti on peeling paint.
Cinnabar has been transformed into an atmospheric cabaret; Red Hot Mama encourages audience participation, from McNight’s flirtatious quips to sing-alongs projected in silent film era inspired cards above the stage. It is an ideal introduction to theater, or for an intimate romantic evening enjoying McNight’s glorious voice belting out memorable pieces such as Hula Lou, If Your Kisses Can’t Hold the Man You Love (Then Your Tears Won’t Bring Him Back) and Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love. Tucker worked with legendary composers: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George & Ira Gershwin, and Harry M. Woods to name a few. She was in the forefront of new movements, recording wax cylinders with Thomas Edison, appearing in “talkies” as early as 1929, and was so popular as a vaudeville artist that she gave a command performance for King George V at the London Palladium. She was known for dazzling gowns and orchids, recreated in a lovely array by costume designer Patti Whitelock, concluding with Tucker’s trademark furs and feathers for the finale.
Sharon McNight captures Tucker’s powerful presence, mingling it with vulnerable moments through her life—discovering the death of her mother, and contemplating the early days of Tucker’s career that were a difficult struggle. She deftly changes focus to include everyone in the audience, shifting between sides of the stage, and calling out to the far back to make sure they feel part of the experience. Jan Martinelli (bass) and John Shebalin (drums) act as accompaniment and comedic foils. Richard Riccardi portrays her pianist and music director Ted Shapiro. A lack of sufficient rehearsal time affects the production, which will most likely be more polished later in January. McNight’s story has a steady flow to it, interspersing background on Sophie Tucker with musical numbers. The denouement is rather awkward in its construction; the audience was not sure when the final applause was meant to take place. This is perhaps a reflection on what Tucker herself used to offer, but without that context it remains confusing.
Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story embodies the glamour and delightfully risqué music of the beloved entertainer, while offering insights into Sophie Tucker’s history through Sharon McNight’s well researched and candid portrayal. For a spirited evening with a powerful woman of show business, visit Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma to meet Sophie Tucker.