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STAGE REVIEW

A brassy, if not red hot, ‘Sophie Tucker’

Mary Callanan as the entertainer Sophie Tucker in the New Repertory Theatre production. Mary Callanan as the entertainer Sophie Tucker in the New Repertory Theatre production. (Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / June 29, 2010

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WATERTOWN — Sophie Tucker was considered a great entertainer in her day — which, incredibly, spanned the entire first half of the 20th century, from the “Ziegfeld Follies’’ to “What’s My Line?’’ — and Mary Callanan is never less than entertaining. So you’d think that a show featuring Callanan as Tucker would be guaranteed to amuse.

But New Repertory Theatre’s “Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,’’ despite Callanan’s powerhouse singing and warm engagement with the audience, never quite catches fire. Partly that’s because Tucker’s persona and style have not aged particularly well. Should a show staged in 2010 even include “Darktown Strutter’s Ball’’ or a pseudo-Hawaiian number called “Hula Lou’’? But mostly it’s because the show, written by Richard Hopkins, Jack Fournier, and Kathy Halenda, uncomfortably straddles the line between light musical revue and full-fledged bioplay.

Mostly, it’s a revue, featuring such standards as “The Lady Is a Tramp,’’ “The Man I Love,’’ and Tucker’s signature hit, “Some of These Days,’’ as well as more obscure items from Tucker’s catalog. Some of these, such as “I Don’t Want to Get Thin’’ and “Living Alone and I Like It,’’ display a pleasing insouciance and self-reliance. Others bring out Tucker’s trademark bawdy wit, which Callanan channels with gusto. But then there are clunkers: “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong’’ and a teary ode to America, and, oh yeah, “Hula Lou.’’ (To be fair, the crowd seemed to love that one — even the two men whom Callanan brought up onstage to shimmy in grass skirts and coconut-shell bras.)

Even the sentiment of “Yiddishe Momme’’ here comes across more as cloying sentimentality — partly because that’s what it is, but more because the writers have tried to set it up with a brief speech about Tucker’s own mother. They don’t give enough depth or detail to make the moment come alive, so it just feels like a generic lead-in to a generically tear-jerking song.

The same problem dogs the other biographical material that’s been shoehorned in between the songs. We learn that Tucker was married three times, never for long, and we hear a bit about each husband, but not enough to get a real sense of her relationships with them or with the other men in her life. Then she’s back to wisecracking about men in general or about her “boyfriend Ernie,’’ a comic creation she used to talk about all her boyfriends, rarely to their benefit.

It’s one thing to present a simulacrum of an old vaudeville routine, and quite another to reveal something truly fresh and interesting about the woman who created that routine. But by landing somewhere in the middle, “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas’’ leaves us wishing for either less or more.

This is a pity, because Callanan is a truly terrific performer with an awe-inspiring voice and a winning manner. With glittering gowns designed by Frances Nelson McSherry, she captures Tucker’s bold and brassy style (though it’s a puzzlement why she gets a reddish wig instead of Tucker’s blond). She also plays nicely off the dry wit of New Rep’s longtime musical director, Todd C. Gordon, who here appears onstage as Tucker’s accompanist, Ted Shapiro.

But the two of them too often feel stranded in the weak material — and stranded, too, on the wide-open stage, with just a piano and a far-off “backstage’’ settee and table to keep them company. Designer Joseph O’Dea may have included these elements to create a more intimate feel, but the vastness of the space defeats the attempt. It’s like watching a cabaret act in a hockey rink.

Sophie Tucker may indeed have been red hot, and Mary Callanan certainly is. If only their show could have been more than lukewarm.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

SOPHIE TUCKER: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas Musical revue by Richard Hopkins, Jack Fournier, and Kathy Halenda

Directed by: Kate Warner. Music direction, Todd C. Gordon. Set, Joseph O’Dea. Costumes, Frances Nelson McSherry. Lights, John Malinowski. Wig and makeup, Rachel Padula Shufelt. Presented by: New Repertory Theatre.

At: Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through July 11. Tickets: $39-$49. 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org