When Sophie Tucker was 25 and just becoming a star, she reportedly brought down the house during a show called “Louisiana Lou.” She did a dance spoof. It was 101 years ago, at the Walnut Street Theatre.
Much later in her career, in 1941 when she’d long been a star, Sophie Tucker would play opposite George Jessel in a musical with a cast of 47, in something called “High Kickers” — this time at the Forrest Theatre and on its way to Broadway. There, it lasted 171 performances, not bad for the time. One of its cast members was Tucker’s ever-present pianist, Ted Shapiro.
You can see a picture of Tucker at the Walnut, plus the playbill from the Forrest at the Walnut Street Theatre, where Tucker has finally returned in the convincing and thoroughly winning person of Kathy Halenda. And Ted Shapiro is still by her side, only he’s now the excellent pianist Jim Prosser, who also is Halenda’s arranger and vocal director.
The larger-than-life Tucker died in 1966, taking with her the most positive outlook — my guess is that if she walked into the Walnut tonight and saw Halenda and Prosser on stage, she’d be as delighted as the rest of the audience. She might even deliver an anecdote or two about “Louisiana Lou” and “High Kickers.” It would possibly involve one of the two subjects high on her list of jokes: being an independent woman, and the vagaries of men.
She’d probably be puzzled by the stage — “Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” is playing in the Walnut’s third-floor Independence Studio, an intimate space not existing at the time she performed on what’s now the Walnut’s main stage. The playing space is just right for the show. It’s outfitted with a piano, a settee, a clothes-hanging stand for boas and an old-fashioned ornamented fake radio mike. In a red get-up full of sequins and with her cleavage predominant, Halenda commands the place in the first act; in a more subdued baby-blue gown for the second half, she picks up where she left off.
That would be the period around the late ’30s or early ’40s, when Sophie Tucker was zaftig, as usual, but still a long way off from the fire-plug figure of her older age. Tucker, in the era presented by Halenda, was still able to base almost an entire evening on men — losing them, bedding them, using them, kicking them out, anything you can think of to do with them — and be believable.
Richard Hopkins directs “Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” which he originally staged with Halenda in 2000 at Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theatre, where he’s artistic director. The show is built for fun, heavy with Tucker’s comic banter that laces 23 songs, including a medley and an encore. This is not your well-worn and frequently gratuitous theatrical bio – the few instances when Tucker tells us her life’s story are quick and tied to a joke or one of her songs. These include “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Some of These Days” (her signature piece), and a heartfelt “Yiddishe Momme.”
Tucker was one-of-a-kind, a woman who made the most of vaudeville and when it died, carried her persona over to the stage, nightclubs, film and radio. For her time, she was what we now call in-your-face: She declared herself an authority on love and sex, fun and the good life, and especially the power of the American woman, and she did it by delivering many songs as poetry and using laugh lines built on innuendo. Bette Midler later would keep Tucker’s spirit alive, with a more raucous version of the performer than Tucker would have been permitted in an earlier time.
That time is a part of the thrill of “Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” Sure, when you see Halenda’s performance, you’re in posthumous touch with the iconic performer. But just as satisfying, you’re fully in her era.
“Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” runs through Dec. 29 at the Walnut Street Theatre’s third-floor Independence Studio stage, at 9th and Walnut Streets. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.