You don’t have to remember Sophie Tucker from when she was alive (she died in the 1960s) to get a vivid sense of her personality in the show Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre. The brassy, larger-than-life persona of the singer-actress-comedienne comes through loud and clear in the performance of Kathy Halenda.
Halenda, who co-created the show with the late playwright Jack Fournier more than 20 years ago for FST, has appeared as Tucker several times before here, the last time in 2012. One assumes the audiences over the past two decades have changed, but every time I’ve seen the show the response has been the same, regardless of how much viewers knew or appreciated Tucker's career before: warm and enthusiastic.
That’s true again now, as Halenda dominates the stage, while still allowing her accompanist, Jim Prosser, as Tucker’s real-life piano man Teddy Shapiro, and some “volunteers” from the audience to shine in their own moments. At this point, it’s almost impossible not to consider Tucker and Halenda as cut from the same cloth, despite what must be very different backgrounds.
Tucker’s includes being born to Ukrainian Jewish parents in the 1880s, fleeing to America, singing in her family’s restaurant from the time she was a young child, and facing resistance to her looks and weight as she struggled to establish herself in show business back in the early 1900s. She also had bad luck with men, including three ex-husbands, and she made good use of those experiences in her stage act, which was filled with personal references, sexual innuendo and some out-and-out dirty jokes that marked her as a woman ahead of her time.
Halenda, clad in either bright red or slightly more subdued blue gowns slit to the thigh, with gaudy jewelry, big feather boas, a wig, gloves and even a tiara, delivers those jokes with gusto, along with some more poignant moments that make you realize how the real Tucker must have coped with her rejection and heartache.
She also, of course, delivers some of Tucker’s signature tunes in a big, husky voice that can range from over-the-top comic moods to torchy or plaintive. She can be that red hot mama of the title on numbers like “You Got to See Mama Every Night,” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or “Some of These Days,” then switch to pathos on “America, I Love You” and “My Yiddishe Momme.” An audience favorite is bound to be the admittedly hysterical “Hula Lou,” which demonstrates Halenda’s skill at interacting with the—ahem—older men she pulls up from the audience and forces to don grass skirts.
Halenda, Prosser and director Richard Hopkins may have teamed on this show before, but familiarity seems to have bred only more affection for its subject. And audiences are bound to love it again, too.
For tickets, call (941) 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.