by Toby Zinman
for the Inquirer
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, a bio-cabaret, was created by Richard Hopkins, Jack Fournier and Kathy Halenda. Halenda performs as Tucker, singing some great songs, which are familiar, even if Sophie Tucker is not attached to them in memory.
Much of the pleasure in any kind of 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 is that Tucker was the “last of the red hot mamas,” but it seems more likely that she was the first of them—followed by those famous bawdy, naughty red hot mamas Mae West, Pearl Bailey, Bette Midler.
Accompanied by Jim Prosser at a shawl-draped, lily-laden, candelabraed grand piano in the midst of a red-lit, potted-palmed set, Sophie Tucker appears in a tight red gown, tiar-ed and be-jeweled, 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 the minor-key songs like “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.”
Walnut St. Theatre, Independence Studio; through December 29. Tickets $35-45. Information: 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org