Movies, radio, and television, capable of preserving indelible performances forever, would eventually make the stage superstar one of the rarest of species. Of the women who traveled the stages, legit and otherwise, of the world before those entertainment behemoths took over, was there a one more influential or ribald than Sophie Tucker?
Sharon McNight certainly doesn't want you to think so. Her show, Red Hot Mama, in which she portrays the entertainment legend, has just arrived and the York Theatre at Saint Peter's. She is determined, like Tucker, to heat the joint up, and make everyone remember what the stars were so big, they didn't need television to be famous.
A lofty goal, yes, and perhaps not one entirely outside of Ms. McNight's grasp. She's got the persona down, that's for sure. Strongly accented by Patti Whitelock's dazzling array of costumes, McNight's Tucker is a ball of energy waiting to explode in the form of a great old song or an even older joke. She's not afraid to poke fun at herself, her band (led by Louis F. Goldberg), or, yes, even the audience.
She also has the voice. As powerful when it's brash and loud or brash and quiet, McNight is an excellent singer, ideally suited to Tucker's songs, and giving them all the vocal and physical energy they deserve. When McNight belts out "Some of These Days" near the end of the evening, it's with enough dynamism to push you against the back of your seat, certainly one of the most thrilling musical moments to hit the New York stage in 2002.
What McNight doesn't have is the star power. How many survive 60 years in show business, rising to the very top of their profession, on sheer talent alone? Not many, but that's the Tucker McNight presents to us. Was there really nothing more to Sophie Tucker than an amazing voice, and a cute sense of humor to charm the audience in between numbers? McNight's patter indicates that there was supposed to be, but it never comes across.
Maybe it could have with a slightly different concept. Tucker's onstage triumphs are interspersed with backstage vignettes that vary in quality from puzzling to unfortunate. These scenes are typical musical theatre backstage stuff - she arrives in a backwater town with a slum dressing room and sings "It All Depends on You," or is having a heated telephone conversation interrupted by a troubling telegram about, she explains in wailing song, her "Yiddishe Momme."
The problems with the scenes aren't due to Jay Berkow's direction, they are set up and staged as well as could be expected, but the scenes themselves are simply unnecessary, adding nothing to our understanding of Tucker. Juxtaposing a performer's backstage life with her onstage life is fine if there's something interesting and vital there, punctuating the onstage moments. Without that, the scenes here don't work.
It's a shame that one is forced to spend those "offstage" moments just waiting for McNight to go "onstage" and sing again. Sophie Tucker deserves more than that, and she deserves a more sizzling and seductive stage treatment than she receives in Red Hot Mama. It's suggestive of the whole evening that some of the most exciting moments of the evening are the audience singalongs to familiar standards. The moments are fun, but should Tucker herself not completely carry the evening?
Regardless, as a tribute to the great entertainer, one could do a lot worse, and having McNight there, belting out those great songs for all she's worth, is almost compensation enough. It may not be Tucker - it may not even be close - but it'll do in a pinch.
The York Theatre Company