NJT delivers vivid three phases of Sophie Tucker

Three faces of Sophie Tucker in the New Jewish Theatre’s ‘Last of the Red Hot Mamas’: (from left) Phoebe Raileanu, Christy Simmons and Johanna Elkana-Hale.

BY ROBERT A. COHN Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The New Jewish Theatre’s current production, “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” by co-playwrights Tony Parise and Karin Baker, is a terrific production, directed and choreographed with verve and precision by Parise, with brilliant musical direction by piano virtuoso Henry Palkes.

As conceived by the playwrights “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” is a “Revusical,” as it chronicles the amazing career of Sophie Tucker, born Sophie Kalish to immigrant Jewish parents who opened a kosher restaurant in Hartford, Conn. Three actresses depict Tucker at various stages of her life, and all three performances complement one another to create the one and only larger-than-life Tucker.

We first meet Young Sophie, full of life and an irrepressible desire to belt out popular songs, endearingly portrayed by Phoebe Raileanu. Young Sophie would attract and entertain customers to her parents’ kosher eatery, and the audience can readily see how she fell in love with performing at a tender age.

“Middle Sophie” is also well-played by Johanna Elkana-Hale, who portrays Tucker as she claws her way into the Vaudeville companies of the early part of the last century, culminating in a regular gig with the famous Ziegfield Follies. Tying all the Sophies together is the magnificent performance by Christy Simmons as “Mature Sophie,” whose personal life and career had more than its share of ups and downs until it reached the top tier by the 1950s.


But “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” is far more than a three-actress musical. A truly outstanding supporting cast who plays multiple roles as Sophie’s parents, her fellow performers, her mentors, rivals and three husbands in failed marriages include John Flack, Keith Parker, Troy Turnipseed, Laura Acermann, Elise LaBarge and Marty Casey. Also of note is Michele Friedman’s wonderful costume design, which enhances each scene as the various incarnations of Tucker appear, resplendent in progressively more luxurious dresses that allow her to celebrate her buxom body in style.

“Revusical” is a truly apt new word to describe the production. “Mamas” combines the raw energy and occasional ribaldry of such shows as “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” with show biz bio-pics like “A Star is Born,” and an array of vintage American songs spanning the eras of Ragtime, Jazz, Swing and Broadway musicals. There are some 18 songs in each of the two acts, but they are performed with such gusto by the various Sophies, who sometimes sing together on stage and are backed up by the versatile, high-energy supporting cast, that one does not notice the passage of time.

Parise, who may well be the world’s biggest Sophie Tucker fan, has assembled an enormous collection of Tucker memorabilia, much of which is on display in the Beit Midrash room at the Staenberg Family Center Arts & Education Building of the Jewish Community Center. Among the prized items are copies of the original sheet music for many of Tucker’s biggest hits, including her signature song “Some of These Days,” and tunes like “If Your Kisses Can’t Keep Your Man at Home, Your Tears Won’t Bring Him Back.” As each song is performed in the show, the sheet music cover artwork is projected on a framed screen, adding a fun visual to the musical feast offered by the singers. Palkes, who works magic at the piano, is backed up by fellow musicians Jay Hungerford, bass; Steve Schenkel, guitar/banjo and Scott Alberici, clarinet.

We learn from the production that Tucker had more than her share of sadness. Each of her three marriages, seemingly done on impulse, ended badly. She had a son by her first husband Louis Tuck, but at the urging of her mother, she gave up the baby to her sister, Ann, to raise while Tucker went off to seek success and fame on Broadway. Her beloved parents die while she is on tour, and when she learns of the death of her mother while in Europe, she sings a heart-wrenching version of “My Yiddishe Mama.” The number concludes with all three Tucker characters joining in the tribute to their iconic and self-sacrificing Mama.

One of her crowning achievements was a British tour in which the English press hailed her as “Dame Sophie.” She was a fixture on the vaudeville and burlesque circuit for several decades, and continued to perform at nightclubs, Jewish benefits and in various major shows, including frequent appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and on Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” until months before she died in 1966.

“Last of the Red Hot Mamas”

When: Through Dec. 26; 7:30 p.m. Wed-Thur; 8 p.m. Sat; 2 p.m. Sunday (additional 7:30 p.m. shows Dec. 12 and 26),

Where: JCC Arts and Education Building, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

How much: $28-$40, and can be purchased through the New Jewish Theatre box office at 314-442-3283 or at www.newjewishtheatre.org.