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Call 'Last of the Red Hot Mamas' a 'revusical'

Monday, July 06, 1998

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In an age when female singers were supposed to look good and keep their mouths shut unless they were on stage, Sophie Tucker was managing her own career through a maze of entrenched men. A career woman before there was such a phrase, she marketed her modest voice as the next big thing in show business. The industry bought it and the crowds loved it.

Mary Stout: Plays one of three Sopie Tuckers

By the time sound recording became feasible, Tucker had already established herself as an important celebrity.

She was one of the first big recording stars, popularizing dozens of songs that have survived the decades, from "Ain't She Sweet" to "Shine on Harvest Moon."

A new musical tells her remarkable story through her songs. "Last of the Red Hot Mammas" blends the song quantity of a revue and the storytelling quality of a musical. Writer/choreographer/director Tony Parise calls the unusual presentation a "revusical."

"That's really an accurate description because there are so many songs," he says. "But it's more than a revue because it's not just a string of songs. The songs actually tell her life story, with maybe four or five lines of dialogue in between."

"What makes it a musical is that the songs further the plot," says Mary Stout, a cast member of the American Movie Classics TV series "Remember WENN" and one of three Sophies in "Last of the Red Hot Mammas."

 
  Stage preview: "Last of the Red Hot Mammas"

When: July 8-25; Wed. through Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m., July 19 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Where: Theatre Tent at Hartwood.

Tickets: Adults $12, children under 12 $6.

Information: 724-942-9440

   
 

"The show starts out with Sophie Tucker - me - on stage telling stories about her life between songs. Two other Sophies play her in various stages of her life. But most of what we find out about her is told through her songs, not dialogue."

Choosing material didn't present a problem for Parise and his partner Karin Baker.

Tucker sang hundreds of songs even before the start of her recording career. Although she didn't begin to write songs until later in life, the writers used Tucker's signature pieces and personal favorites to tell a story they say is both historically and chronologically accurate.

"Karin and I are really big music historians on turn-of-the-century stuff, so we made it very accurate" says Parise. "There's only one song out of place. We say it happened in 1909 but it really happened in 1924. Other than that, all the songs are in chronological order. We follow her from childhood until she made it big in 1934 when she was in her 40s."

The project began in New York where Parise and Baker arrange and direct musicals. While waiting for their next assignment, they began searching for a story to tell in revue form. With a huge amount of Tucker's material to choose from, Parise says they were able to move the show to something between a revue and a musical.

"Last of the Red Hot Mammas" debuted in North Carolina and ran for three weeks in 1996. New and improved, say its writers, it opens in an evolved form Wednesday at Hartwood as the second production of the new SteelCity Theatre company.

Stout says she's the role she created in North Carolina has grown to include more nuances concerning Tucker's background.

"I became interested in her in the late '70s," she says. "I read her autobiography and thought she was someone I wanted to imitate. . . . She said when she was young, 'I'm not very good but I kept hoping someday somebody would think I was.' She created her own career out of nothing, and she became a very, very smart businesswoman at a time when women were not known for creating their own careers. I can't help but admire that."

Parise and Baker cast musicians who could also act and dance to play important people from Tucker's past. As her memories fade in and out, the songs sketch the timeline and the characters retrace her unusual life. To help tell the story, some of the songs are elaborately choreographed, while others are delivered quite simply. New York actors Juliet Ewing and Nicole Martone are joined in the production by Pittsburghers Maria Becoates Bey, John Holt, Steve Bulyga, Vallerie Williams and Demetria Mellot. "There are so many things to say in a piece like this about Sophie," says Stout. "They have to do with the kind of woman she was and the amount of drive and personality she had. I think she was amazing."



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