Presented by the York Theatre Company at the Theatre at St. Peter's, 619 Lexington Ave., NYC, May 8-
Move over, Elaine Stritch and Bea Arthur—there's another one-woman tour de force on the boards this season. In "Red Hot Mama," cabaret queen Sharon McNight paints an indelible musical portrait of Sophie Tucker. Never breaking character, McNight (who also conceived the show) is a font of information regarding the vaudevillian legend, yet manages to avoid the didacticism often inherent in this sort of biographical format. Best known for her renditions of the "naughty song," the oft-married Tucker overcame a troubled personal life to conquer every medium of entertainment during a career that spanned 60 years. After the renowned Palace theatre caught fire during her performance, she earned the titular moniker.
McNight is in total command from the moment she takes stage, virtually flawless when belting out a tune associated with Tucker or regaling the audience with one of Sophie's witticisms (e.g. "Beauty fades, but dumb is forever!") She is somewhat less successful, however, in the show's dramatic interludes requiring vulnerability. For example, a vignette concerning the death of Tucker's mother, followed by an over-the-top rendition of "My Yiddishe Momme," is more melodramatic than poignant.
Musical director Louis F. Goldberg is both a masterful musician and a perfect—and perfectly deadpan—comic foil for McNight. Goldberg, bassist Reggie Carson, and drummer Grace Millan deliver Stan Freeman's razzmatazz arrangements with panache. Gaudy, bawdy costumes designed by Patti Whitelock add oomph to McNight's portrayal. And while director Jay Berkow's deft pacing and seamless scene shifts make the intermissionless 90 minutes fly by, the overutilized sing-along segments become a trifle twee. Still, given the timeless appeal of Tucker and the strength of McNight's high-energy performance, audience members should leave the theatre whistling a happy, albeit naughty, tune.