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Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas — Walnut Independence Studio on 3

SophieInside300 Kathy Halenda nails all the traits that made Sophie Tucker popular and unique during her heyday as a nightclub entertainer and raconteuse whose career spanned more than half of the 20th century.

      Behind the exaggerated diction that hid regional and ethnic accents are the direct, pointed song stylings, the “schmaltz” numbers, the easy patter with the audience, ad libbed by Halenda with the quick sharpness Ms. Tucker exuded, and the ribald humor, those goose-and-gander jokes involving Soph and her boyfriend Ernie, that clinched Ms. Tucker’s lasting stardom, accessible today from recordings and clips on You Tube.

      Halenda blends Tucker’s repertoire and humor to make “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” more of a concert, or cabaret turn, than a play. She’s smart to do so. It’s the songs and patter you want to hear, not a lot of biographical information that few shows insinuate with much success. Halenda demonstrates the savvy of a veteran entertainer as she goes, with Tucker-channeling style from classics like Eddie Green’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and Cole Porter’s “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love” to Sophie’s own compositions, “I’m Living Alone and I Like It” and “I Don’t Want to Get Thin.” In some of these numbers, Halenda improves on Tucker in a way by singing more of the melody while Sophie tended to speak a lot of lyrics as her long-time accompanist, Ted Shapiro, provided stride variations of the tunes on his barrel house piano. At the Walnut, Shapiro’s role is filled with keyboard virtuosity by Jim Prosser, who even fills the bill of being thin so he and Halenda can trade quips about their comparative weight.

       Halenda uses her voice and her acting ability to make the most of one of Tucker’s endearing classics, “Mein Yiddische Momma,” and obviously enjoys the bawdier parts of Tucker’s act. These include the Ernie jokes, my lasting favorite of which has Ernie informing Sophie that he, at age 75, is going to leave her for a younger woman. Sophie quickly responds she may follow suit and take up with a younger man, saying, “And let me tell you something, Ernie. Twenty goes into eighty a lot more times than eighty goes into twenty!”

       All of the Tucker standards are sung with style and a smile. These include Sheldon Brooks’s “Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” Rodgers and Hart’s “The Lady is a Tramp,” Overstreet and Higgins’s “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” and the Gershwins’ “The Man I Love.” Halenda once again is clever and she builds her show  so that several big payoff numbers come at the end, by which time she has made Tucker welcome company and contrasting the material about her rampant sexiness with heartfelt tunes that involve  more singing than talking is wise.

      Tucker’s signature songs, “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” which serves to set up the old-time feel of the Halenda’s show, and “Some of These Days” are the bookends of Halenda’s performance.  She has some fun with two male members of the audience by bringing them up to help her sing and dance “Hula Lou,” a sequence that shows Halenda can work well and stay in character without a script.

       Halenda’s show is as complete as it can be. It is a smart, congenial entertainment that lets you see the genius of a bygone star while enjoying the talent and assurance of a current-day leading lady. Halenda and co-writers Richard Hopkins and Jack Fournier rekindle a great era of show business with all of the glitz, personal charm, and sophistication of a more glamorous period in nightclub history. Bruce Price’s set is extraordinary. It makes the Walnut’s tiny third-floor black box look cavernous and elegant with two decorative proscenium arches, one at the front and one at the back of the stage, overlapping lace curtains hanging from the backstage arch, a sumptuous chaise longue, and a doweled wooden coatrack where Tucker’s costumes and boas add color. Marcella Beckwith’s costumes are equally witty, Halenda appearing in first a red, then  a blue turn-of-the-last-century style gown with a slit in the skirt so Soph can show some leg.

      “Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” provides a good time and the right kind of history lesson because no one should be so wrapped up in current modes of entertainment to forget or ignore the artistry of older eras and the stars who led the way.

      “Sophie Tucker” The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” runs through Sunday, December 29 at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 (the Walnut’s third floor), 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No performances are scheduled for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day. Tickets range from $45 to $35 and can be ordered by calling 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or going online to www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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