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Theater Review

"Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas" ****

Many an old burlesque show began with this advice to the audience from a baggy-pants comedian: "You might as well enjoy yourself. Your reputation is shot anyway for being here."

Burlesque and two-shows-a-day vaudeville spawned legions of singers and strippers, cuties and comics -- nearly all of them traveling the famed "Mutual Wheel" circuit from New York to St. Louis, playing a hundred Rialtos and Palaces -- before both became footnotes in the history of American theater. In the late 1920s, 2 million people daily attended shows at 1,000 vaudeville theaters across the United States.

Sophie Tucker polished her bawdy and flirtatious singing style in burlesque and vaudeville, sharing the bill with the likes of Eva Tanguay, Eddie Cantor, Sir Harry Lauder and the immigrant comedy team of Weber & Fields. At age 10, Sophie had worked in blackface before landing a "small but telling" part in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1909. Gradually gaining recognition, she made the first recording of what would eventually become her signature song: the raucous "Some of These Days."

"Some of these days," go the lyrics, "you're gonna miss me, honey." After listening to and laughing at MusicalFare Theatre's newest production, "Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas," it's plain to see that we miss her a lot.

The ubiquitous Lisa Ludwig directs Kelli Bocock-Natale in this fast and funny tour de force by Jack Fournier and Kathy Halenda; the play is yet another MusicalFare "regional premiere." John Fredo adds some choreography, Chris Schenk has assembled a richly red, sexy-looking set, and Phil Farugia is featured as Sophie's long-time pal and accompanist, Ted Shapiro.

You can look but you won't find anyone better to play the big and brassy Sophie Tucker than the equally big and brassy Bocock-Natale, half-singing, half-talking 23 vintage songs such as "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "I Know My Baby Is Cheatin' on Me," "You've Gotta See Your Mama Every Night (Or You Won't See Mama at All)."

Sophie warbles: "I won't see him if he's a sheik if he only does his sheikin' once a week." In truth, they don't write them like that any more.

There's the ribald Sophie and in late play, the hint-of-heartbreak Sophie. Confiding to the audience -- as she does often -- about her boyfriend, Ernie, she tells of the night she told him that he would be having super sex. Ernie was tired so he said he'd just have the soup.

In the late going, Sophie's story recalls regretful childhood decisions and a distant relationship with her sacrificing mother. A mellow Bocock-Natale is great, too, and she can do justice to the American standards, "There'll Be Some Changes Made," "After You've Gone" and "The Man I Love." It's a performance to remember -- with fine aid from pianist Farugia as both friend and foil Shapiro.

In 1966, Sophie Tucker, truly "The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas," died at age 82, her voice shot, appearances reduced to monologues only, a lifetime away from the singing waitress in her father's Hartford, Conn., cafe. But, happily, MusicalFare, skilled director Ludwig and the outrageous Bocock-Natale have brought back a legend to rollicking life.