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.