'Sophie Tucker' charms with sass and sexy sweetness

At the Walnut Street Theatre, Kathy Halenda stars in "Sophie Tucker, the Last of the Red Hot Mamas," presented with good-natured vulgarity.
At the Walnut Street Theatre, Kathy Halenda stars in "Sophie Tucker, the Last of the Red Hot Mamas," presented with good-natured vulgarity. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 26, 2013

If you're wondering whether anybody under 90 remembers the singer and celebrity personality Sophie Tucker, who was born in 1884, the answer is clear: At least three people do. This tribute show, which opened Friday at the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3, is a bio-cabaret created by Richard Hopkins, Jack Fournier, and Kathy Halenda. Halenda plays Tucker, singing some great songs that are familiar even if Tucker is not attached to them in memory.

Much of the pleasure in any biography is that you already know something about the subject and want to know more. This show is more like an archival romp to support the claim that Tucker was the "last of the red hot mamas," but it seems more likely she was the first - followed by those famous bawdy, naughty successors Mae West, Pearl Bailey, Bette Midler.

Accompanied by Jim Prosser at a shawl-draped, lily-laden, candelabraed grand piano in a red-lit, potted-palmed set, Tucker appears in a tight red gown, tiaraed and bejeweled, a kind of female Liberace before the fact. Halenda is not a belter, but great songs like "A Good Man is Hard to Find," "There'll Be Some Changes Made," and "Some of These Days" are great songs, regardless of who's singing them.

The character Halenda creates has a vulgar, corny sweetness that won over the audience completely; her voice is serviceable but becomes far stronger and more melodic in minor-key songs like "My Yiddishe Momme" during the nostalgic second act. Act One is all good-natured, smutty, sexy swagger.

Biographically, we learn about her immigrant parents, her need for an audience, her three failed marriages, her sexual appetite, and that she was a bad daughter and a bad mother: "I am what I am." It may be that that unapologetic attitude is the charm of the personality.

She tells us show-biz stories without any vanity: Louis B. Mayer, the movie mogul, told her she should lose weight: "You're fat." "I'm a star," she replied, "I want a second opinion." "OK," Mayer said, "you're ugly, too."

She gives us advice about keeping your man ("If your kisses can't hold him, your tears won't bring him back") and has two men in the audience come onstage to dance with her. The finale has the audience singing along with "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."


THEATER REVIEW

Sophie Tucker, the Last

of the Red Hot Mamas

Through Dec. 29 at the

Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3,

Ninth and Walnut Streets.

Tickets: $35.

Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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