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Channeling Sophie Tucker

Channeling Sophie Tucker

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

She broke taboos by publicly celebrating her body at a time when women were expected to be quiet and demure. Now Sophie Tucker, the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” comes back to life for one night only in a rollicking cabaret performance by singer Cheryl Ann Allen.

When the show ran last October at the Players Theater, David Noh of Gay City News gushed that Allen “richly captured Tucker’s stentorian, heavily exhalatory delivery” and that she “sang with a better, more powerful voice than Sophie herself.” Joel Martin plays Tucker’s longtime accompanist, Ted Shapiro, in the concert, which runs next Thursday evening at Don’t Tell Mama, a nightclub in the theater district.

“Cheryl Ann Allen Sings Sophie Tucker,” which runs 90 minutes, is written and directed by Allen’s husband, Ian Finkel, son of the Emmy Award-winning Jewish entertainer Fyvush Finkel. Ian, who is a virtuoso xylophonist, performs often with his brother, Elliot, the acclaimed pianist and conductor. (They appeared together in 2010 with their father as part of a superb show at the Folksbiene called “Fyvush Finkel Live.”)

Tucker, who began her career singing in her parents’ delicatessen in Hartford, became famous in vaudeville for bold, brassy numbers like “Some of These Days” (which became the title of her autobiography), “I’m Living Alone and I Like It,” and “Life Begins at Forty.” Her most famous Jewish song, “My Yiddishe Mama,” which she sang both in Yiddish and English, stoked memories of immigrant parents on the Lower East Side for Jews who had already moved out to Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Joyce Antler, who teaches at Brandeis, has written widely on American Jewish female comedians. In an interview, she noted that Tucker “put women’s pleasures and desires at the center of her songs.” By using her humor to “push immigrant song narrative from lament to a more energetic and robust gaiety,” Antler explained, she “exposed the disabilities of traditional female roles.”

Her physicality was a key to her success. “She was a big, solid, tough woman,” Allen told The Jewish Week, comparing her to Bette Midler, who followed to some extent in Tucker’s footsteps. “She wasn’t physically beautiful, but she was beautiful in her own way — she gave money to charities, synagogues, even prostitutes who needed help taking care of their children.” And like Bella Abzug, Allen said, Tucker “came out and said what she thought. She had a different sound. She spoke about life.”

“Cheryl Ann Allen Sings Sophie Tucker” runs on Thursday, May 16 at 7 p.m. at Don’t Tell Mama, 343 W. 46th St. Cover charge is $15 plus a two-drink minimum. For reservations, visit

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