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Thursday, 09 December 2010 23:22

Red Hot and very cool

Written by Bob Wilcox
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Red Hot and very cool
newjewishtheatre.org/John Lamb

Christy Simmons makes a welcome return to St. Louis theatre with a beautifully realized performance as Sophie Tucker in The Last of the Red Hot Mamas. Tucker was a major star in vaudeville and nightclubs in a career that lasted from the turn of the last century until her death in 1966. In order to get work when she started, she performed in blackface – not something she liked, but she turned to African-American performers of the day for advice to make her numbers authentic. She carried that training with her when she dropped the blackface. That, and her frequent double-entendres and slightly raunchy material gave her performances a quality rare at the time, one that justified her claim to be "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas."

Simmons gets all this in her performance, with the belting voice and the good-time attitude. She has a residue of a Jewish immigrant's inflections as she narrates Tucker's life. Tucker was proud of her Jewish heritage; "My Yiddishe Momme" was one of her biggest hits. Costume designer Michele Friedman Siler clads Simmons in two gorgeous gowns and a fur stole, and Christy Sifford gives her a blonde wig. Simmons looks sensational and is sensational.

Tony Parise and Karin Baker, who wrote the show, subtitle it "The Sophie Tucker Revusical." That's an accurate description. The evening has forty songs and no plot other than Tucker's career. Parise and Baker give us three Tuckers: the mature one presiding over the evening, played by Simmons; the young Sophie, singing in her parents' Connecticut restaurant, an impressive performance by young Phoebe Raileanu; and the "Middle Sophie" who struggles and wins, played with warmth, charm and assurance by Johanna Elkana-Hale.

Outside their portion of Tucker's life, Raileanu and Elkana-Hale double in the ensemble, along with Laura Ackerman, touching as Tucker's mother; versatile John Flack as her father and others; Elise LaBarge sparkling as rival stars of the era; Troy Turnipseed flashing his magical dancing legs; Keith Parker playing bad and good men in Sophie's life; and Marty Casey enchanting the audience as Tucker's friend and employee Molly Elkins.

Parise directs and choreographs his handiwork briskly and inventively. Musical director Henry Palkes gets to show off his comedic acting chops as well as lead a terrific four-piece combo. Dunsi Dai extravagantly drops a full proscenium stage into The New Jewish Theatre's new black box. Mark Wilson lights it.

The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, a polished gem, continues at The New Jewish Theatre through December 26, 2010. Tickets are available at 314-442-3283 and online at newjewishtheatre.org.

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