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