Former local cabaret staple and more recent Tony nominee (for 1989’s “Starmites”) Sharon McNight is back on home turf with “The Sophie Tucker Songbook,” a solo homage she’s currently workshopping around the country. Tucker’s ribald, Last of the Red Hot Mamas persona suits McNight to a brassy T (as it did fellow fan Bette Midler beforeher). Given some expansion in the book department, this show could shape up nicely toward its hoped-for Off Broadway goal.
Cutting an appropriately lavish figure in her period black velvet dress and fur-trimmed cape, the performer portrays her subject at an imagined Miami gig (“Ben Walton’s Latin Quarter”) not long before her 1966 demise. McNight, who looks mid-40ish, wastes no serious effort on an octogenarian affect, focusing instead on referencing Tucker’s six-decade career in vaudeville, legit stage, nightclub, film and recording.
The singer alternates between patter and tunes, with emphasis soundly on the latter. A more cohesive autobiographical outline would be something to shoot for; for now, McNight amusingly, if fleetingly, reprises bits of Tucker’s life philosophies (“Eat, drink and remarry”) and delivers showbiz anecdotes about everyone from Thomas Edison to Cole Porter.
Tucker’s bawdy streak gets yet bawdier in some choice old selections, like the Yellen-Dougherty “(I’m) Living Alone (and I Like It),” “Hula Lou,” “I Don’t Want to Get Thin” and Yiddish novelty “Myron” (whose spouse laments he’s no longer “desirin’ me”).
McNight socks lyrical jokes across even more cannily than she does the spoken ones; she handily apes Tucker’s blues-inflected, side-of-the-mouth vocal style while maintaining a personal stamp. Her cast-iron vocal equipment travels from growl to belt to earnest plea without a false step. The Gershwins’ “The Man I Love” starts out rhythmically perky, then ascends to grandiose balladry. “He’s a Good Man to Have Around” juggles wry humor and bittersweetness, while “Moanin’ Low” and a slow-burning “After You’ve Gone” get straight, show-stopping ballad treatment.
Pianist James Followell (in the guise of Tucker’s longtime accompanist Ted Shapiro) provides able support and is the occasional droll foil. While the tightly paced evening might tire if extended too much, its delights could easily support a bit of padding toward the 90-minute mark. One suspects Tucker herself would give this polished, funny tribute her grateful blessing.