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St. Louis by Richard Green

Last of the Red Hot Mamas
The New Jewish Theatre

Last of the Red Hot Mamas
Phoebe Raileanu, Christy Simmons and
Johanna Elkana-Hale

After two and a half hours spent lingering through the many details (and old, old songs) of her life, it's easy to understand why it takes three women to portray the late, great Sophie Tucker. The broadly styled entertainer blazed her way through the first half of the 20th century, from music halls to burlesque, to the Ziegfeld Follies and later in cabarets and as a recording artist, even singing before the king of England. And here, the three Sophies sing more than two dozen of her best-known tunes. But even that leaves out a few awfully good ones in the bargain: it's not a big deal, but I still have a pang of regret at not hearing the ironic, melodramatic "Mr. Fink."

In the world premiere of this epic story (billed as a "revusical"), Christy Simmons is especially fantastic in the second act as the entertainer in her golden years, but is very fine earlier too, narrating in a less stylized manner. She takes us through her years as a stage-struck girl (played by Phoebe Raileanu) to her life as a rising star (Johanna Elkana-Hale), and on to world-wide fame. The two younger Sophies are excellent, too, but it's Ms. Simmons, ultimately swaggering in her satins and furs and jewels, who really thrills with the look and sound and feel of Tucker's bawdy, gaudy and maudlin act. Ms. Raileanu and Ms. Elkana-Hale sing beautifully, and the steady development of style and personality is evident throughout, thanks to director/choreographer Tony Parise (who also co-wrote the show with Karin Baker). But it's that older, "act two Sophie" that'll really sell the tickets to this show.

When that second half rolls around, Ms. Simmons shows that she certainly can wave a tear-soaked hanky like it was Old Glory on Flag Day, and make Mae West seem like just a pale imitation of her own bawdy style. But maybe that lower-key performance in act one is all for the best, as a full two and a half hours of unremitting Sophie Tucker attitude might just be a little too much for modern audiences to bear. And there's a constant danger, too, in terms of narrative: the show could easily become one long tribute episode of "The Lawrence Welk Show," if it were any more stylized. But, whenever the champagne bubbles threaten to get a little too thick (in those nostalgic old tunes), reality will sweep in to burst every bubble in sight. One good example of this comes in the transition from the ebullient song "Great Big Blue-Eyed Baby" into the laconic "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (in a great duet between the young and old Sophies).

A fine chorus lends dazzle and visual importance to the story, whether they're nurturing Sophie or rejecting her, or competing or backing up one of her three selves in various musical numbers. Their sinuous parade as burlesque artists, when Sophie starts to make a name for herself, is a highlight of the production. They include the highly polished John Flack as Sophie's father, and Florenz Ziegfeld, and a devilishly tempting third husband. The younger song-and-dance men, Troy Turnipseed and Keith Parker, also do tireless work as energetic back-up boys and poorly chosen suitors, showing good range in their many guises. Laura Ackermann is fine as Sophie's mother, with a very dramatic final appearance at the reading of her own will, and Elise LaBarge is great as a series of lady reporters, keeping us up on Sophie's antics—and also fun as a deeply jealous competitor on the Follies stage.

But it's Marty Casey, as Sophie's personal assistant, who lends the most consistently exciting support, as coach and confidant. She feels what Sophie cannot, finds new songs for her, and keeps her grounded: all the way from the fringes of the Follies, through international fame, and into old age. She's also a very enjoyable singer and dancer in her own right. Theirs is the most interesting relationship because it survives, and because the two women are so nearly equals—and because (for unstated, but fairly obvious reasons) no one else can squeeze into a close orbit with the bosomy star for very long. In fact, we never even meet Sophie's own son, who is raised by her sister, and (going by the play, here) never seemed to come into contact with the great entertainer in any significant way, himself.

Likewise, in a hundred other ways that go unspoken, writer/director Parise (and his co-author, Ms. Baker) let us know that the fantastical Ms. Tucker must have been an amazing woman, but also a woman of great ambition, with a particularly narrow focus in life—even as she croons so convincingly about her own troubles finding just one good man to share it all with her.

Songs of the first act include "I'm the Last of the Red Hot Mamas," "My Yiddishe Momme," "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nelly," "A Bird in a Gilded Cage," "Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home," "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," a touching lullaby called "All Aboard for Blanket Bay" sung by Ms. Raileanu, "Put Your Arms Around Me Honey," "There'll Be Some Changes Made," "I Ain't Got Nobody," "Aggravatin' Papa," "You've Gotta See Mama Every Night," "Shine on Harvest Moon," and, in a great act one closer, Ms. Elkana-Hale sings a rousing rendition of "Hard-Hearted Hannah."

In the second act, you'll hear "After You've Gone," "It All Depends on You," Ms. Casey's gambling number, "Seven or Eleven," the emigrants' song, "America, I Love You," "Oh, Johnny," "When I Lost You," "What do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For," "'Till We Meet Again," "What'll You Do," "If Your Kisses Can't Hold The Man You Love," "Alabama Jazbo Band," followed by a jazzy duet between Ms. Simmons and Ms. Casey, "Darktown Strutters' Ball," and then "Red Hot Mama." The evening closes with a quintessential performance of "Some of These Days" by Ms. Simmons.

Through December 26, 2010, at the Jewish Community Center. For information, visit www.newjewishtheatre.org, or call (314) 442-3283. The "J" is about two blocks west of Lindbergh Blvd. on Schuetz Rd., between Page and Olive Rds, over the hill from the bowling alley.

Cast
Sophie Tucker: Christy Simmons
Ted Shapiro, Irving Berlin, King: Henry Palkes
Young Sophie, King, Ensemble: Phoebe Raileanu
Middle Sophie, Eva Tanguay: Johanna Elkana-Hale
Papa, Chris Brown, Gus Hill, Ziegfeld, King, Al Lackey, Ensemble: John Flack*
Louis Tuck, Eugene Howard, Marc Klaw, King, Ensemble: Keith Parker
Frank Westphal, Willie Howard, Jack Norworth, William Morris, King, Ensemble: Troy Turnipseed
Mama, Ensemble: Laura Ackermann*
Nora Bayes, Lillian Russell, Ensemble: Elise LaBarge
Molly Elkins, Bert Williams, Ensemble: Marty Casey*

Musicians
Piano: Henry Palkes
Bass: Jay Hungerford
Guitar/Banjo: Steve Schenkel
Clarinet: Scott Alberici

Production Staff
Director & Choreographer: Tony Parise
Music Director: Henry Palkes
Production Manager: Dave Hahn
Technical Director: Jerry Russo
Assistant Technical Director: David Hahn
Stage Manager: Lee Anne Matthews*
Scenic Design: Dunsi Dai
Lighting Design: Mark Wilson
Costume Design: Michele Friedman Siler
Properties Design: Wendy Renee Greenwood
ME/Board Operator: Nathan Schroeder
Draper: Nina Reed
Wigs: Christy Sifford
Construction: Zach Fullenkamp

* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association


Photo: John Lamb


-- Richard T. Green

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