The incomparable Sharon McNight, Tony Award nominee and Theatre World Award winner for “Outstanding Broadway Debut” in 1989’s Starmites, shines in her own highly acclaimed show Red Hot Mama, The Sophie Tucker Story now playing through March 11 at the Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, CT.
This musical comedy tribute to Sophie Tucker, the legendary zaftig singer and earthy comedienne, was written and is directed by Sharon McNight with musical arrangements by award-winning Stan Freeman.
McNight, a critically acclaimed musical theater and cabaret star in her own right, channels naughty, bawdy Sophie Tucker by recreating the 20’s and 30’s song-story style of singing with a bigger-than-life stage presence and direct address banter – creating an intimacy between the star onstage and her audience.
For more than sixty years, Sophie Tucker was a major box-office attraction known for her charismatic stage (and off-stage) personality and show-stopping brassy and sassy signature songs and stories. She first hit the big time in vaudeville and moved on to Broadway, and later made recordings and guest starred on radio and TV. Her biggest hits were “Some of These Days”, “After You’ve Gone,” and her so-called “naughty songs” – “There’s Company in the Parlor”, “Girls” and “Come on Down.” McNight recreates more than 20 of Tucker’s hits during a 90-minute no-intermission performance.
Accompanied by multi-talented conductor Brent C. Maudlin on piano (and in a few vocals), Mark Ryan/Kurt Berglund on drums and Richard Scarola on bass, Ms. McNight commands the stage as the buxom Tucker with a campy playfulness and exudes vocal stamina with her big, bold voice. Although Sophie Tucker’s style was a bit subtler, McNight’s high-volume version of the vaudeville and nightclub star is perfectly delivered with an engaging “innocent-I’m-not” attitude in her song/story-telling. Depicted here is a strong woman who has lived a show-biz life on her own terms.
Beautifully costumed in an array of gorgeous beaded gowns, McNight manages to command the action onstage, even when she’s off in the wings changing outfits. This is accomplished by the musical trio and screen-projected lyrics giving the audience a chance to sing along to “Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie” and other ditties while dressers backstage magically transform Ms. McNight from a red-dressed flapper in one scene into an elegant nightclub diva in white-beaded gown and feather headdress in another. Just as the sing-along is completed by the vocally cooperative bemused audience, the diva appears from the wings once again to delight with a new story or song.
McNight’s regional credits include Amanda McBroom’s “Heartbeats” at the Pasadena Playhouse, and an award-winning Dolly in “Hello, Dolly” at the Peninsula Civic Light Opera. Sharon was Sister Hubert in “Nunsense” in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where she received the Bay Area Critics Circle award for her performance.
McNight’s other credits include a master’s degree, that was useful when she combined it with her stage craft to encourage, teach and coach theater hopefuls at the two-time Tony Award- winning Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, CT and the International Cabaret Conferences at Yale University in New Haven, CT. As a brilliant monologist, her story-telling prowess is fully realized in Red Hot Mama, as each phase of Sophie Tucker’s life unfolds and is revealed in anecdotes and quips by Ms. McNight.
Daniel Husvar has created a simple set which gives the illusion of dressing rooms stage right and left, while center stage is where the major night-club performances take place. Scott Andrew Cally lights Ms. McNight in bold spotlighted brilliance to match the star’s glow, and Matt Martin’s sound design gives the aural illusion that no microphones or speakers are necessary to hear the volume of McNight’s pipes. Production Manager Stephanie Gordner and Stage Manager T. Rick Jones keep the action moving and the gowns flying.
There is no other current headliner more qualified to star in Red Hot Mama, The Sophie Tucker Story than the incomparable sassy, brassy belter Sharon McNight. A highly overworked expression is “must see” – but in the case of Actor’s Equity member Sharon McNight in Red Hot Mama the expression cannot be stressed enough. This is truly a must-see performer who directs herself in a must-see show.
Show dates are February 15-March 11. Evenings at 8 PM and matinees at 2 PM. For tickets go to www. sevenangelstheatre.org and click on “Buy Tickets.” The theater is at 1 Plank Rd. Hamilton Park Pavilion, Waterbury, CT. off I-84. Set your GPS to avoid ongoing construction. Free Parking across from the theater.
Review by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle. Members Connecticut Critics Circle.