Mama Mia!
Sharon McKnight as Sophie Tucker
(Photo: Halpin/Croyle)
Mama Mia!
Sharon McKnight as Sophie Tucker
(Photo: Halpin/Croyle)
Sharon McNight, who's been wowing cabaret audiences for a couple of decades now with a powerhouse voice and a presence to match, has always strongly resembled vaudeville great Sophie Tucker. McNight is a full-figured blonde, as Tucker was, and she has Tucker's ability to whack a bawdy song across the footlights so that, when it lands, it's completely good-natured, even lovable. McNight looks and behaves enough like Tucker to pass for her, which is what she's been doing since she introduced The Sophie Tucker Songbook six years ago, as part of an ASCAP showcase at the since-shuttered Rainbow & Stars. Now she has expanded the boite item into a theater presentation she calls Red Hot Mama. The idea, apparently, is to tell more of Tucker's story by supplementing the biographical material she's been dispensing between songs with revelatory scenes from the fabled performer's life.

But if that's the idea, the execution doesn't do much to enhance the solid routine that the usually shrewd McNight had already crafted; indeed, the makeshift and sketchy vignettes she has interpolated have the opposite effect. Though (luckily) there aren't many of these segments, they cheapen and dilute McNight's presentation. These moments include an opening look at Tucker in her dressing room, reading notes from Eddie and Ida Cantor and Groucho Marx; Tucker arriving in a different and substantially less luxurious dressing room at the beginning of her music hall career; and Tucker receiving a telegram with news of her mother's death.

If McNight really intends to show Tucker, born Sophie Abuza in 1884, as the three-dimensional woman she was off-stage--as opposed to the lusty on-stage character she developed over a 60-year career--she needs to do more than she has done so far. If she intends these scenes merely as extended song intros (e.g., the telegram scene is followed by an emotional rendition of "My Yiddishe Mama"), then the add-ons are totally unnecessary. Just singing the songs would have every bit as much impact.

But enough of the bad news, since it only applies to a very small percentage of what happens on stage. McNight still spends most of her spotlit time wonderfully impersonating the audience-savvy Tucker, who always carried a handkerchief to wipe the sweat (never flop sweat!) away from her fleshy face; who could work a room until it melted at her feet; who starred in Cole Porter's Leave It to Me and sang "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love" to a fare-thee-well; who made standards out of "After You've Gone" and "Some of These Days"; who packed the Latin Quarter whenever she dropped in; the one who cleared the way for comediennes as diverse as Belle Barth and Roseanne.

McNight has to be too young to have seen Tucker in person, but she gets all the mannerisms. She's boisterous and offhand with the audience. (There is a lot of by-play with the crowd, not to mention a certain amount of encouraged singing along.) She does Tucker's assured gestures: the arms raised or sweeping or pointing, the small but determined steps and easy way with simple choreography. She laughs the hearty laugh that accompanied Tucker's enjoyment of her own liberal, not to say libertine, manner. In fact, she has channeled Tucker so well that the show's ad libs (and there are probably fewer than it may seem) sound completely authentic.

During the 90-minute program, McNight performs close to two dozen songs with gusto. Many of these are familiar, including two numbers from Tucker's film Honky Tonk. There is also a moving rendition of "The Man I Love." McNight doesn't dwell on the naughtier material but does give an amusing accounting of "Myron," in which a woman laments her husband's loss of "desirin'." What McNight totally avoids is the telling of vulgar jokes in which Bette Midler indulges when appropriating, as she has often done, the Tucker persona; McNight keeps to safe innuendoes, like the remark she makes about the supposedly fake fur that she sports towards the finale. (She also has Tucker recall working with Mary Martin in 1938's Leave It to Me and giving the young performer a tip on how to deliver innuendo.)

To help McNight fob off her perfectly fine nightclub act as something more grandiose, set designer Mary Houston has divided the stage of the York Theatre into three parts. The middle is where Tucker beneficently performs in front of drummer Grace Millan, bassist Alex Walker and, at the piano, Louis F. Goldberg, who stands in for longtime Tucker musical director Ted Shapiro. At stage right and left, Houston has draped red velvet curtains that are pulled back every once in a while to reveal the areas where McNight indulges herself in those insubstantial scenes mentioned above.

Costume designer Patti Whitelock is responsible for the resplendent gowns McNight wears, a few of which are elaborately beaded and look exactly like what Tucker preferred when she was putting on the showbiz dog. Lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger helps to keep the star looking properly bright and brazen. Despite McNight's slight misstep in the dramaturgy department, the hope remains that she won't get Tucker-ed out any time soon.