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‘Red Hot Mama’ heats up Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater

Red Hot Mama

When: Jan. 6-Jan. 29. Showtimes are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Extra matinee showing on Saturday Jan. 28 at 2 p.m.

Where: Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North.

Tickets: Adult tickets are $35 in advance and $40 at the door. Admission for youth 21 and under is $25 in advance and $30 at the door.

More information: Visit cinnabartheater.org or call 707-763-8920.


For singer-actor Sharon McNight, playing the part of legendary vaudeville performer Sophie Tucker started out as a bit of a joke. But eventually, becoming Tucker — famous in the 30s, 40s, and 50s for her bawdy songs and risqué on stage jokes — turned into one of the greatest challenges and opportunities of McNight’s career.

“It began in 1985, actually,” McNight said as she took a break from rehearsals at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater, where she will be performing her nationally acclaimed one-woman-show “Sophie Tucker: Red Hot Mama,” for three weeks beginning Jan. 6.

“I’d started singing some Sophie songs, just clowning around,” she recalled, “and then it all sort of ballooned. People would tell me I should write a show about Sophie, and I’d laugh about it. Sometimes I’d have a gig where I’d do some Sophie Tucker songs, and I was learning more and more. Then I picked up a biography of her life, and I went, ‘Damn. I really do have to play Sophie Tucker.’”

In the mid-1990s, “Red Hot Mama” was work-shopped at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and Lucille Lortell’s White Barn Theatre, and was successfully staged for three months at the York Theatre, Off-Broadway.

Like Tucker, born in Russia but raised in Connecticut, eventually renowned as a quintessentially American performer, McNight has lived her life in the spotlight. Born and raised in Modesto, she began performing early, and has appeared in countless shows across the country. During a lengthy time living in San Francisco, teaching theater at City College, McNight became well-known for her burlesque-tinged cabaret shows, for which she won critical acclaim as one of the Bay Area’s most influential proponents of the cabaret art form. The Los Angeles Times once dubbed McNight “One of the great wonders of the musical stage.”

She received a Tony nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her 1989 Broadway performance in “Starmites,” a show about comic book characters brought to life in the imagination of a teenage girl. The appearance resulted in stellar reviews, and The Theatre Worlds Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut. Al Hirschfeld, the famous cartoonist, was significantly inspired by her performance to do one of his signature caricatures of her.

Always on the lookout for material that properly showcased her talents, McNight has written a number of her own stage shows, including a cabaret act titled, “Ladies, Compose Yourselves!” featuring songs written by female composers. Other shows include “Betty, Betty, Bette,” focusing on the lives and legends of Betty Grable, Betty Hutton and Bette Davis, and “Songs To Offend Almost Everyone,” a celebration of 1950’s-era comedy. She’s currently working on a couple of promising new projects, one focusing on the life of Mae West, and another based on the songs of Randy Newman.

“I love Randy Newman,” McNight said. “I did two of his songs in my show ‘Something to Offend Everyone,’ and I did his song ‘Guilty’ on my first CD. I’m thinking of calling it ‘A Randy McNight,’ or maybe ‘McNewman and McNight’ or something.”

For the moment, however, she’s all about Sophie Tucker. For the last several weeks, she’s been rehearsing the show, which includes a number of Tucker’s most indelible songs, including her signature “Red Hot Mama,” along with “Some of these Days,” “After You’ve Gone,” “My Yiddishe Mama,” “I’m Living Alone (and I Like It),” and possibly the naughty novelty tunes “I Don’t Want to Get Thin” and “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl (But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love).”

Red Hot Mama

When: Jan. 6-Jan. 29. Showtimes are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Extra matinee showing on Saturday Jan. 28 at 2 p.m.

Where: Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North.

Tickets: Adult tickets are $35 in advance and $40 at the door. Admission for youth 21 and under is $25 in advance and $30 at the door.

More information: Visit cinnabartheater.org or call 707-763-8920.

“Sophie had a big, big voice and so do I,” McNight said. “She lived her life on the road, and so have I. She had a racy, risqué sense of humor, and so do I. We have a lot in common, Sophie and me. I love getting to become her every night, and show the world who she was, good and bad and otherwise.”

McNight said that when she first started singing Tucker’s songs, people began bringing her sheet music as thank you gifts.

“People would find this stuff at flea markets,” she said. “So they’d bring me Sophie Tucker songs, and now I have this huge collection.”

McNight said items from her collection will be on display in Cinnabar Theater’s lobby during the run of the show.

“You’ll get to see her different phases, her styles and hats and dresses and looks,” she said. “Sophie was a very stylish person, though she never made it very far in pictures, because she was a big woman, and she was always cast as the unglamorous aunt, or some representation of poverty. She came from poverty, and achieved success, so the last thing she wanted to do was portray poverty on the big screen. So she mostly stuck to the stage.”

That said, Sophie Tucker made one of the first-ever talking pictures, “Honky Tonk,” in 1929. It’s the story of a woman struggling to keep her recent life as a successful cabaret singer secret from her European-educated daughter. It was a reflection of the struggle Tucker had throughout her own life. Though the film no longer exists — “Just the audio,” McNight said — it contained a performance of “Red Hot Mama,” and several other Sophie Tucker classics.

“I do four songs from “Honky Tonk” in my show,” McNight said. “Those are some great songs. And that’s saying something. Sophie had a big presence, and a big voice, but I’m here to tell you, she also had great taste in songs. Lucky me, ‘cause now I get to bring those songs to life every night.”

(Contact David Templeton at argus@arguscourier.com)