Monday, July 5, 2010

Sophie's voice

Mary Callanan as the repressible Sophie Tucker.

Reviewer complaints about the New Rep's Sophie Tucker: Last of the Red Hot Mamas have been many, but most have have fallen into two camps. The first, given by young reviewers (at the Herald and the Arts Fuse), was the common millennial cry of "This isn't about me!," an observation which is hard to deny. The other complaint has been "This is politically incorrect - and I don't mean 'politically incorrect,' I mean actually politically incorrect!" (That was the Globe's take.)

Which is also pretty much true, because Last of the Red Hot Mamas fiddles very little with an act (or its political attitudes) that by now is almost a century old. Indeed, even though there are three authors attached to this little revue, all they've done is basically serve up Sophie Tucker's greatest hits, so it's hard to see how they earned their royalties.

Still, those hits have endured for a reason, as they say - their concerns are classic rather than up-to-the-minute - and it's nice to hear them once again in a light-heartedly risqué evening. No, the show's not "red hot" - but was the frumpy Tucker ever really "red hot"? That was always kind of a joke, boys and girls.

Of course Tucker's witty novelty numbers, such as "Living Alone and I Like It," "You Gotta See Your Mama Every Night" and "I Don't Want to Get Thin" did reflect an independent woman of her day dealing with love and sex on her own terms. These ideas aren't cutting edge now, but they're certainly still apropos. And to be fair, her millennial sisters cheer along on those. But they're not so sure about her frank enjoyment in pleasing a man sexually (this may be why many of Tucker's current fans are gay men) and her no-nonsense acceptance of the ethnic and sexual tropes of her day (like many Jewish entertainers of her era, she for a time performed in blackface) likewise make today's progressives hold their noses. Callanan doesn't don blackface, of course, but she does roll out one of the hits Tucker sang that way, the wonderful "Darktown Strutters' Ball," which gave the Globe a conniption.

Why should this be so? I can't understand the modern mania for transmogrifying the past - whether it's Sophie Tucker or Shakespeare - into some idealized version of the present; a present, I'd like to remind you, in which racial, ethnic, and sexual codes are still completely embedded, even as they're routinely denied. No, Sophie didn't deny these codes - she simply transcended them; this has been the solution of progressive entertainers since time began. And more power to her, I say. What are these critics hoping for - Kate Clinton sings Gershwin?

Bette Midler knew all too well the source of her own act - a scene from her Divine Madness concert film.

I do have my complaints about Last of the Red Hot Mamas, but they're mild, and centered on the performers. The reviewers who dissed the show were all careful to praise star Mary Callanan, who seems to have everything it takes to put over Tucker's material (aside from that Jewish pedigree); she has a big, warm, brassy presence, and a voice that, quite frankly, puts Tucker's to shame. But at least on opening weekend, Callanan was slightly restrained and self-conscious; she wasn't having fun yet - and since that's what she's known for, the mood of the show was slightly distanced. Was Callanan thrown by the big, empty set - or was her tentativeness due to a desire to reproduce Tucker's vocal affect precisely? If that's the case, fuhgeddaboudit and just make it your own, Mary. I wasn't too excited by accompanist Todd C. Gordon's piano playing, either. Gordon was dryly witty in his banter with Callanan, but he banged his way through most numbers, in a manner that I guess counts as "period" - but I longed for a lighter, more evocative touch on torch songs like "The Man I Love" and "After You've Gone" - works that have been transformed over time into far richer documents than they seemed in Tucker's day. That's the kind of updating that I would have been down with.

I was still bemused, and occasionally bewitched, however, by this entertainingly ribald blast from the past. Callanan did well by the gorgeous standards in the show (there are four of them) and she certainly knows how to land the hilariously naughty "Ernie" jokes (above, served up by the inimitable Bette Midler). My gut is the show will pull together - and even now you could do far worse on a sultry summer night.