Once one of America's most popular singers, Sophie Tucker first recorded for Thomas Edison, and - though her last hit record was in 1937 - was still performing in the 1960s. She is now, for most, a distant memory. Yet, "the last of the red-hot mamas," as she billed herself, seems to be in for a bit of a revival. Bette Midler has been performing "Soph" jokes for years, now, and last year's Cinegrill appearance by Lainie Kazan included a lengthy tribute to the bawdy belter (Tucker, not Midler). Last year, cabaret star Sharon McNight debuted her own tribute to Tucker at New York City's Rainbow & Stars; she's taken it to Charleston, S.C.; San Francisco and Chicago before her current Cinegrill stand. And, on McNight's opening night, NBC's firstrun "Frasier" included a fleeting reference to Tucker.
Unlike Kazan, who simply dropped a few Tucker numbers into her set, McNight is dressed and bewigged for the role, offering a full-blown re-creation of the artist, reminiscing as she performs a nightclub set late in her career.
Tucker was a vaudevillian, and it’s a real kick to hear McNight re-creating her archaic, belting vocal style. All that’s missing is the scratches on the 78 rpm shellac records, and McNight is a strong enough vocalist that her wireless microphone is somewhere between superfluous and a distraction in the smallish Cinegrill – Tucker, like Al Jolson, aimed her voice at the back rows of the Palace.
The material at Tuesday’s well-received hour-long opening included Tucker’s signature tune, “Some of These Days,” ballads “The Man I Love” (which she recorded in 1928) and “It All Depends on You,” and the more novelty-oriented “You’ve Got to See Mama Every Night (or You Can’t See Mama at All)” and “Myron” – the latter, as raunchy as McNight got, the story of a gentleman with performance anxiety, from the POV of his frustrated lover. No “Soph” jokes here.
McNight’s longtime pianist, James Followell, took on the role of Tucker’s musical director, Ted Shapiro, and David Derge filled out the sound on drums.