"There's more music in a grand baby than there is in a baby grand" is among the first lines casually dropped away, sung as a song fragment by Wendy Westerwelle as Sophie Tucker in "Soph: A Visit With the Last of the Red Hot Mamas."
For the rest of the evening at the Callboard Theatre, where "Soph" kicked in on high octane Sunday night, Westerwelle sets about to prove it. Not only is there the music that was in this "grand baby," but also the pragmatism ("Size doesn't matter; if you could sing and make people laugh, it doesn't matter"), the earthy humor and the table-top philosophizing that became her trademarks in 62 years in show business.
As a one-person event, "Soph" breaks no new ground, but it treads the old one very rewardingly.
Westerwelle (who also wrote the piece with Vana O'Brien and Jim Weber) provides plenty of chronological biography that gets dished out with the jokes, the stories and the songs.
If at first she looks too young and not quite chunky enough for the legendary Soph (who once said of herself, in a borrowed black slinky gown laced up the front, "I looked like a kosher bologna in mourning"), one remembers that there had to be a time when Sophie Tucker was younger.
As the minutes pass and the songs get stronger, the humor bawdier and the philosophizing kitsch-ier, Westerwelle grows on you. She and Tucker blend more and more into one. Whatever the impersonator lacks in exact looks, she makes up for in observed and acquired attributes: the wigs (Jeffrey Sacino), the clothes, the round back, the high waistline, the Yiddish accent, the clever eyes and the walk of an egg-bound duck.
"They wanted to let their hair down and be, well--vulgar," says Westerwelle/Soph, explaining the prevailing rationale behind the humor of the burlesque circuit that she played early on. "They wanted trash; we gave it to them."
This earthiness and democratic bluntness never left her. It had its champions and its detractors. At a 1934 command performance for Britain's royal family, she greeted the royal box at London's Palladium with "Hiya, King!" And when television became significant, she shunned it actively:
"Let's face it, darling, television is not for me. I look too big, too fat, too ugly on that screen. It was that way in radio, too: You can't do this, you can't do that. I couldn't even say 'hell' or 'damn' and nothing, honey, is more expressive than the way I say 'hell' or 'damn.' "
Sophie was a naturally wise, fundamentally uneducated woman who grew up singing in her parents' restaurant in Hartford, Conn., where the songs went free with the 25-cent gefilte fish. She fled after a failed marriage and a baby (whom she left behind for her mother to raise) to make her fortune in show biz--and she never again let anything get in her way.
Westerwelle paints an exclusively positive picture of this single-mindedness, even though the facts suggest there was a price to pay for it (a degree of ruthlessness and two more failed marriages).
She also, however, gives us the only thing that mattered publicly: the Red Hot Mama who defied the odds, the fat girl who tantalized the guys and the Jewish heart in full schmaltz.
Director Paul Hough makes as good use of the cramped Callboard stage as is possible when you have to maneuver around a baby grand (played with zest by Ron Snyder as Tucker's accompanist, Teddy Shapiro). It is to Westerwelle's credit that she nimbly navigates the clutter (Mark Larson designed the backstage set and gilt proscenium, Michael Gilliam the good lighting) and, despite a slightly nervous start (at least opening night), manages a triumphant finish in full voice.
As well-researched and executed an imitation as this is, it stops just short of courageous. Tucker was acclaimed public property, but in private suggests a woman who was not all that easy to love.
Westerwelle's performance offers a glimpse of the public life and its motivations, its songs, its humor and canny fun, leaving us to wonder, as we exit the theater, about the loneliness of this very long-distance runner.
Performances at 8451 Melrose Place run Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 6 and 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Indefinitely. Tickets: $12.50-$15; (213) 466-1767.