Celebrated warbler Sophie Tucker was the most famous of the Prohibition-era "naughty girls" who belted out honky-tonk melodies, jazz tunes and torch songs in vaudeville acts that also sometimes included trained animals, female impersonators and famous criminals holding forth about their checkered pasts. The collective drawing power of speakeasies, talkies and Broadway musical comedies eventually lured audiences away from the rough-and-ready charms of vaudeville, but the formidable Tucker still managed to forge a sixty-year singing career in which she always remained true to the saloon origins that made her a star.
Tucker's diehard fans will be happy to learn that the zaftig crooner's lifework is having a local revival of sorts in Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Songbook, a one-woman show written by and starring Broadway actress Sharon McNight. Now on stage at the Source Theatre, the engaging production features several of Tucker's signature songs (some of which were written by notable composers Irving Berlin, Jack Yellen, and George and Ira Gershwin) mixed with anecdotes about the singer's ongoing struggle for survival in a profession fraught--then as now--with flavor-of-the-month-minded charlatans. And while a few of the show's rambling scenes of dialogue detract from an otherwise entertaining evening, McNight's marvelously sung portrayal nonetheless serves as fine homage to the bump-and-grind elan of a one-of-a-kind chanteuse.
In fact, whether McNight is encouraging the audience to sing along to the bouncy strains of "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie" or treating spectators to the thrice-divorced Tucker's penchant for self-deprecation ("I can hold a crowd, but not a husband," she murmurs between songs about romance), the veteran cabaret performer's impersonation of Tucker is always convincing. This is especially true when McNight interacts with pianist Michael Levine and his splendid three-piece band or sashays in front of a red-curtain backdrop that's sometimes evocatively lit with a faux-footlight effect. (The tasteful set was designed by Gary L. Miller, the lighting by Peter Nielson.) And when she dons a dark sequined evening gown and black feather boa (the costumes were artfully designed by Patty Whitelock) for her spirited rendition of "I Ain't Got Nobody," at the end of Act One, McNight's credible portrait of the classy, brassy entertainer is made all the more complete.
However, she sometimes compromises her delightful singing efforts by ruminating on the relatively insignificant details of Tucker's personal life. Some of these drawn-out scenes are interesting, and a couple eventually pay off when McNight segues into a song with lyrics relevant to the story we've just heard. But most of the information in the biographical episodes would be more effectively conveyed if McNight confined her comments to a well-chosen handful and sprinkled them amid a few show-unifying, instrumental interludes. After all, the straight-shooting Tucker herself wasn't much for convoluted conversation. (Her advice for achieving a satisfying longevity? "Keep breathing.") Tucker preferred to let her singing do the talking--an instinct that comes from an overriding desire for respect that, as the bulk of McNight's loving tribute proves, only a showgirl can fully appreciate.
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Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Songbook, presented by Denver Center Attractions for an open-ended run at the Source Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.