There was nothing small about Sophie Tucker. From her waistline to her personality, The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas, as she was dubbed, was big enough to dominate a stage all by herself.
In a near-magical feat, Gwendolyn Jones uses her own dynamic personality and stage presence to bring that legendary performer to life on the stage of the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, now through Oct. 19.
Tucker’s career spanned the whole first half of the 20th century and a little more, ending with her death in 1966 at the age of 79. Having begun as a child, singing for the customers in her parents’ Connecticut restaurant, she performed in vaudeville and burlesque, Broadway, radio and movies. In her later years, she even did some television, with appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show.
The show at the Bickford, written by Richard Hopkins, Kathy Halenda and Jack Fournier, is a one-woman show with a little help. The irrepressible Jones dominates the stage, but, as Tucker was throughout much of her career, she is accompanied by an on-stage pianist. Music director Nick DeGregorio plays the role of Ted Shapiro, Tucker’s longtime accompanist.
It’s hard to say whether the story or the music takes center stage. Tucker’s personal story is an American legend: the immigrant girl, not pretty in any conventional sense, almost the definition of chutzpah, with a talent that made her a virtual force of nature, overcoming the odds and becoming a star. It was a long road and on that road there were plenty of tears and a few laughs. Jones shares those moments with us.
There are 21 musical numbers, starting with such ancient chestnuts as The Darktown Strutters’ Ball and A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and including classics by Rodgers and Hart (The Lady Is A Tramp) and the Gershwins (The Man I Love).
For one hilarious number, Hula Lou, Jones as Sophie went down into the audience and enlisted two mildly reluctant men to dance a hula with her, dressed in grass skirts. It was interesting to watch how quickly the volunteers took to their moment in the spotlight.
Some of the songs were apparently written for Tucker and not necessarily familiar to the audience, but interesting for how they fit into Tucker’s story. But Jones’s rendition of one of Tucker’s most famous songs, Yiddishe Mama, brought cheers—and a few tears as well.
Jones, with apparently boundless energy and infectious good humor, brought the show to a conclusion on a very high note. She closed with Sophie Tucker’s signature song, Some of These Days.
It was a joy for me to meet Sophie Tucker. She was a gifted woman and a pioneer, and Gwendolyn Jones brought her back to life brilliantly.
Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas will be performed at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, now through Oct. 19. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.971.3706 or visit www.morrismuseum.org/bickford online.