Tuesday, April 28, 2015


by Toby Zinman



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

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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