note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
Talented, well-loved actress Mary Callanan rejuvenates an entertainment legend who was larger than life - stage, radio, and movie star, Sophie Tucker - in Richard Hopkins, Jack Fournier and Kathy Helenda’s musical revue, “Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” currently appearing through July 11 with the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown.
Although Callanan can belt out a tune a’ la Tucker, and flirt and cavort around stage and among the audience, she’s more subdued than the infamous vaudeville star. Sophie Tucker was born Sonia Kalish to a Russian-Jewish family, in 1884, who left Tsarist Russia when she was a baby in hopes of starting a new, better life. They settled in Hartford, Conn.
Tucker had that hungry lust for life that was her signature throughout her 81 years.
As a child, she sang her heart out at her parents’ small restaurant in Hartford, walking from table to table, serenading diners. She went to New York alone when she was 16, and married Louis Tuck, which ended early in divorce. Two other failed marriages followed during her climb to stardom. “I’ve been married three times and there won’t be a fourth - I’m sick and tired of paying alimony,” she cracked, before singing, “I’m Living Alone and I Like It”.
Tucker was big, bold and brassy, one of the first to emancipate heavyset women by celebrating her size and gaining fame and fortune because of it. She blazed trails not only on stage, where she was initially forced to perform in blackface (because the directors told her she was too fat and too ugly), to stealing the spotlight as a singer-comedian in Florenz Ziegfeld’s extravagant Follies. Unfortunately, the gorgeous, leggy stars resented Tucker’s popularity and she was fired; leaving her only to climb further up the path to stardom.
Callanan is good. She sings several of Tucker’s big hits in her higher key, with the telltale trill of the 1930s singers, and Tucker’s volume that reached all corners, up to the rafters, in vaudeville, burlesque and on radio. Like Tucker, Callanan also talks through some of the songs.
Callanan lends her own special touch to Tucker’s key hits, “Some of These Days,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “You’ve Gotta See Your Mama,” “I’m the Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” and others.
She also flaunts Tucker’s blatant independence, which inspired other brassy female performers such as Ethel Merman and Bette Midler, empowering them.
Somehow, though, Callanan is too dignified, lacking Tucker’s earthiness, bawdiness, and devil-may-care attitude that kept audiences coming back for more throughout her long career. Callanan also lacks Tucker’s deep, throaty, gravelly voice that singled out the buxom star.
In an interview, Callanan said she wasn’t going to impersonate Sophie Tucker, but would capture her essence. Yes, she cracks bawdy, off-color jokes, but conversationally, not with knee-slapping gusto or overtly mischievous flirtation.
She also addresses Tucker’s hearty sexual appetite, delighting in her naughtiness, singing “He’s Tall, Dark and Handsome”. However, when Callanan shimmies and shakes, she lacks Tucker’s oomph. Remember, those antics in Tucker’s days, were shocking. Today, we’d barely raise an eyebrow. However, her one-liner, “I had to break up with my boyfriend; his family didn’t approve of me - [that is], his wife and three children,” drew laughs.
Also funny is when Callanan recruits two volunteers to dance with her in “Hula Lou,” dressing them in sailor caps, then in grass skirts and coconut bras.
Life isn’t all a bed of roses for the Hot Mama, though. She tackles her heartbreak, too, in a softer rendition of “After You’re Gone”.
Overall, something’s missing here. Perhaps Callanan lacks Tucker’s “Jewish” soul - that deep-down ache, that hunger, prevalent in her “yiddishkite,” or Jewish persona, that’s lost in translation here. Callanan does a soulful, thoughtful rendition of Tucker’s sentimental “My Yiddishe Mamma” that evoked tears from those of us with dearly departed Yiddishe mammas; yet that traditional, loving, mournful ache isn’t there.
Callanan recaptures the rapport between Tucker and her 40-year pianist, Ted Shapiro, as she and music director-pianist Todd C. Gordon quip back and forth in playful repartee between songs; but set designer Joseph O’Dea’s uncluttered stage, with its vaudeville-style background curtain, a piano, barely used clothes trunk, table and settee, is too sparse.
Although the audience applauded loudly at the end, and the gracious Callanan delivered two encores --- “Hard-hearted Hannah” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” --- the play falls short. Perhaps it should be a full-scale production, in the genre of “Gypsy,” instead of a revue of Tucker’s numbers interspersed with scant dialogue.
BOX INFO: Two-act musical revue starring Mary Callanan with pianist-music director Todd C. Gordon, directed by Artistic Director Kate Warner, appearing through July 11 at the New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Charles Mosesian Theatre, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown, Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4, 8 p.m.Tickets are $39-$49; seniors get $7 discount off full price; student non-rush, half off; student rush, $13. Call 617-923-8487 or visit www.newrep.org.