Theater: Red hot

Sharon McNight goes full Tucker

By David Templeton

“It started as a dream—literally,” says Sharon McNight, describing how her affection for the music of late vaudeville legend Sophie Tucker became the one-woman show Red Hot Mama—The Sophie Tucker Story.

A Tony Award nominee for her lead performance in the 1989 fantasy-musical Starmites, McNight brings her acclaimed solo show to the Cinnabar Theater for four more weekends, after an opening performance on New Year’s Eve.

The dream wasn’t even McNight’s dream.

“It was the guy who signed me to my first record contract,” she recalls. “He said that he saw me playing Sophie Tucker on a Broadway stage. This was 1981, and I was performing in Provincetown, Mass. at the time.

“The guy woke up, called my manager, and he said, ‘I had this dream about Sharon and Sophie Tucker, and I think it’s a really good idea,’” she continues. “Tell Sharon to get Sophie Tucker’s biography and start putting together a show. It’s important that this happen. I think it could be really big for her.’”

Though it took a few years for the Sophie Tucker project to get rolling, it was, it turns out, a dream come true. Modesto-born McNight has won critical acclaim for Red Hot Mama, and several other shows she’s written and performed over the years.

“She was really something,” McNight says of Tucker, whom the Los Angeles Times once called “one of the great wonders of the musical stage.”

“At a time when women were not all that independent,” McNight says, Tucker “was totally in control of her own life. She carried her own suitcases, negotiated her own contracts, chose her own path. She was amazing, though her life was never easy, largely because of those choices.”

In the show, McNight sings dozens of Tucker’s songs, including “Red Hot Mama,” “Some of These Days,” “My Yiddishe Momme” and “I Don’t Want to Get Thin.”

“It’s those songs that I first fell in love with,” McNight says. “Sophie could beautifully ‘sell a song.’ She really knew how to tell a story.”

And clearly, so does Sharon McNight.

‘Red Hot Mama—The Sophie Tucker Story’ runs Jan. 6–29 at the Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma; Friday–Saturday, 8pm; Sunday matinees, 2pm; $25–$40; 707/763-8920.

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