Play: “Last of the Red Hot Mamas”
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Studio Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus
Dates: December 8, 9, 11, 12, 15, 16, 18, 19, 22, 23, 25, 26
Tickets: $28-$40; contact 314-442-3283 or www.newjewishtheatre.org
Story: Sub-titled “The Sophie Tucker Revusical,” this two-act work by Karin Baker and St. Louis native Tony Parise is a warm-hearted look at the long and lusty career of Sophie Tucker, who was known by the nickname that gives the show its title. Born Sonya Kalish to Jewish parents in Ukraine in 1886, she immigrated with her parents to America to Connecticut, where as a child she began singing at the family restaurant.
Later she moved to New York City, performed in minstrel shows (against her wishes for producers worried about her homely looks and corpulent build), in vaudeville and in jazz clubs and dance halls at home and abroad for Florenz Ziegfeld, William Morris and others impresarios. Large and relatively unattractive, she nonetheless regaled audiences with her risqué sense of humor and lusty interpretations of songs both standard and original, written for her by such luminaries as Irving Berlin. The legendary chanteuse performed up until shortly before her death at age 80 in 1966.
Highlights: First produced in 2006, this lively and entertaining look at the life of one of America’s most well-known performers of the early to mid-20th century is given a rousing rendition in its New Jewish Theatre debut. Under Parise’s loving and crafty direction, and complemented by his choreography that makes most judicious use of the Wool Studio performance space, it features three dozen tunes that encourage swaying, finger-snapping and soft singing along to their convincing rhythms and moods. The impressive contributions of his amiable cast and an agreeable musical trio make for a smooth and entertaining tribute.
Other Info: Three gifted actresses take turns portraying Tucker in her early years, at about age 35 and then at age 50 when she looks back on her achievements. Sadly, those accomplishments were more pronounced in the professional arena than in her personal life, which was dotted with three short-lived marriages and produced a son she left behind to be raised by her parents and primarily her sister.
Christy Simmons introduces the show as the mature Tucker. Like Phoebe Raileanu, who portrays the young Sophie, her singing voice is merely adequate, and thus her presentation relies on her sure and steady acting. Her looks and demeanor capture the robust Tucker profile as well as her mastery of the double entendre. As the young Tucker, Raileanu shows us Sophie’s love for her parents as well as her drive for theatrical success.
As the middle portrayal of Sophie, Johanna Elkhana-Hale treats us to a rich and beautiful voice which seems almost operatic in her interpretations of various song standards such as “My Southern Rose” and “You’ve Gotta See Mama Every Night.” Each of the three takes a turn at Tucker’s famous “My Yiddeshe Momme,” while Simmons closes the show with her take on Tucker’s hallmark ballad, “Some of These Days,” in her familiar singing/speaking style.
Actually, the production really works best when the ensemble is front and center, warbling smoothly through such old-time, familiar numbers as “Bill Bailey,” “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and many others. All of the tunes are introduced by period posters that loom above stage left in Dunsi Dai’s imaginative and colorful set which also features a mock stage and music director Henry Palkes’ lively band positioned at stage right.
Michele Friedman Siler adorns the cast with a resplendent rainbow of hues and dapper attire to mark the performers as well as the working-class togs of Sophie’s parents. Mark Wilson’s lighting moves judiciously between larger numbers and spotlights on the individual Sophies, while Wendy Renee Greenwood’s properties match the times and eras depicted.
Jay Hungerford on bass and Scott Alberici on clarinet complement pianist Palkes, who doubles in fine fashion as Sophie’s longtime musical accompanist Ted Shapiro. Parise’s accomplished ensemble features John Flack as Sophie’s Papa, Ziegfeld, third husband Al Lackey and others, and Laura Ackermann as her beloved Mamma, a woman who disapproved initially of her daughter’s foray into an “unrespectable” occupation.
Troy Turnipseed shows his agility both with his dance moves and a little juggling as second husband Frank Westphal, booking agent William Morris and others, while Keith Parker ably plays first husband Louis Tuck and others. Marty Casey is delightful as showman Bert Williams and as Sophie’s confidante Molly Elkris, while Elise LaBarge does well as haughty singer Nora Bayes.
If you like, you can peruse a free exhibit of Tucker memorabilia at the JCC prior to a show performance. Either way, “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” will likely have you humming a happy tune.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.