Brassy, bountiful, and blessed with talent, Sophie Tucker dreamed of a life “beyond the cook stove and the kitchen sink.” Mary Callanan‘s portrayal of the vaudeville legend, now on stage in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, takes the audience on a musical tour of the realization of that dream. Callanan serves up Tucker’s earthy style and sexy humor with a wink and a nod, acknowledging the fact that most of the audience have heard these classic vaudevillian lines before, but still laugh at her carefully pitched delivery.
Described as too fat and ugly to succeed as a straight singer, Tucker used comedy to earn a starring role on the vaudeville stage. For the daughter of Orthodox Jewish immigrants to New England at the end of the nineteenth century, this meant finding ways to barrel past a whole host of barriers. Out of necessity, she took the invectives hurled at her and turned them into currency. Big, bawdy, and brash became her act. She sang an ode to reciprocal infidelity, “I Know My Baby Is Cheating On Me,” and spoke for all the “big-boned gals” with a defiant “I Don’t Want to Be Thin.” This brazen response to societal pressure was extraordinary, and audiences responded to her. She paved the way for future comediennes and singers such as Joan Rivers, Moms Mabley, and Bette Midler, who references “Soph” in her act.
Callanan is a talented singer, although the songs in this production do not allow her to demonstrate a very broad range of expression. The first act, in particular, is overloaded with songs of consistent tone and tenor. Callanan narrates Tucker’s life’s story in between belting out one red hot number after another. In the moments when she offers a glimpse of vulnerability, the audience is captivated. When speaking about her poor mothering to her son, or her unsuccessful search for true love, Callanan displays flashes of piteous humanity. Unfortunately, these occasions are cut off by a quick one-liner or an off-color joke. While this may communicate something about Tucker’s guarded disposition, it also undercuts the drama by making it impossible for the audience to feel pathos for the human being behind the performer. Despite Tucker’s revolutionary accomplishments and her international success, The Last of the Red Hot Mamas at times reveals a woman whose outward bravado does not conceal the heartbreak within.
The second act begins with an energetic and studied performance of “The Lady is a Tramp.” Callanan engages directly with audience members, particularly during a number called “Hula Lou,” in which she recruits two unsuspecting men to join her on the stage and dance with her. This is the most lively and delightful piece in the revue, mostly due to Callanan’s charm and easy repartee with both the audience and the participants. She dresses them in grass skirts and coconut bikini tops, and it is worth noting that Callanan is at her most vivacious when directing these hapless, helpless men to shake and shimmy like dance-hall floozies. When Callanan croons “Life Begins at Forty,” and “Living Alone and I Like It,” the defense of independence resonates, even today.
“Follow Your Star” and “Yiddishe Momme,” toward the end of the second act, offer the best opportunities for emotional expression and Callanan sings with feeling, but without overstating. This is unexpected, especially for those used to hearing “Yiddishe Momme” served with an extra helping of schmalz. The banter between Callanan and her pianist, Todd C. Gordon (also Musical Director) is funny and warm. Gordon’s contribution enriches the performance without stealing scenes.
Overall, Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas is an enjoyable, entertaining revue. Tucker deserves to be remembered and honored for clearing a path for women — Jewish and gentile, plain and beautiful, zaftig and svelte — who also wish to live “beyond the cook stove and the kitchen sink.”
SOPHIE TUCKER: THE LAST OF THE RED HOT MAMAS By Richard Hopkins, Jack Fournier and Kathy Halenda; directed by Kate Warner; musical direction by Todd C. Gordon. New Repertory Theatre, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown, through July 11. Tickets: $39-$49, phone: 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org.