Live From Purgatory
Sophie, Totie, and Belle are no longer household names, but you can still draw straight lines from the blues singer Sophie Tucker, the '60s comedienne Totie Fields, and the borscht belt star Belle Barth to Bette Midler, Roseanne, and Joan Rivers, not to mention the dozens of lesser-known women comics, actresses, and performers they inspired. Like a three-headed personification of show biz these great -- and also enormous -- bawds of the American stage and nightclub scene embraced and made innovations in multiple theatrical conventions, from burlesque and vaudeville to nightclub and cabaret. Is it any wonder that someone decided to corral the trio into one revue?
The appealing Sophie, Totie & Belle, devised by Joanne Koch and Sarah Blacher Cohen, imagines a postmortem meeting of the three stars in a heavenly waiting room of sorts. The idea -- and it's not a very good one -- is that the performers are auditioning for a place in heaven that only one woman will get. What, those skinny goyim Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both get into heaven, but there's only room for one of these fat gals? Is room getting tight in the extra-large section? Luckily the considerable physical girth of Tucker, Fields, and Barth is not the main focus of the show. And the framing device is little more than an excuse to revisit the shtick of each, filling the connecting sections with superficial patter about the difficulties of being women on stage. (A better gimmick is the use of Steven G. Anthony, who plays the many lovers, husbands, and agents the women encounter.)
Kathy Robinson, who plays Totie Fields, is the first to break through the show's ridiculous conceit, and not just by expressing angst about the days before the Pill, a modern invention of particular usefulness to women on the road. (Koch and Cohen aren't exactly gifted at creating dialogue for their heroines.) Rather, her gaga performance in one priceless sequence -- lifted from Fields' repertoire and having to do with pulling the leg of a snobby saleswoman at a chic department store by asking to try something on in a size seven -- moves through several emotional fields and at least two fields of gravity. Her imitation of Fields is more than seamless; it's almost better than Fields herself.
As Belle Barth, Stacy Schwartz has the thankless task of stepping in for South Florida favorite Margot Moreland, whose 11th-hour foot injury prevented her from assuming the role of the woman who sold two million off-color comedy records. A stick of a woman, Schwartz may not look like Barth, whose Catskills beginnings (she was 16 years old when she began performing) evolved into stardom in Miami, making her a headliner at the now-defunct Place Pigalle and Mayflower Lounge. But Schwartz, I'm told, expertly captures Barth's hard-as-nails persona. If she seems a little out of place here, it's because director Gary Waldman hasn't figured out how to accommodate the radically different performing styles of the three stars.
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In one of the more interesting biographical tidbits, the show re-creates the professional turmoil that Barth experienced on the occasion of her one date at Carnegie Hall. Warned by an anti-Semitic (and horrendously stupid) promoter that she would only embarrass herself and "her people" if she did the blue material that her audiences loved, Barth went against her instincts and changed the tenor of her show. The date was a flop and Barth was embittered by the experience. This incident is one of the few moments in Sophie, Totie & Belle in which we understand what is at stake for these performers, women who had few role models themselves as they broke new ground.
Indeed the Carnegie Hall mishap could have been the juncture at which the creators of Sophie, Totie & Belle hint at how Barth and her colleagues paved the way for, say, Joan Rivers to rise to stardom telling jokes about the indignities of her gynecological exams. Instead they allow Barth to moan about her five failed marriages without the benefit of engaging analysis. Totie Fields, who was married to her bandleader husband for most of her life, is the happy one of the trio, despite losing a leg to diabetes. (Somehow she managed to find the rare would-be performer not threatened by his wife's natural gifts.)
Creator Cohen, the playwright behind the popular Molly Picon's Return Engagement, and Koch, a women's studies professor at Northwestern University, have little to say about these headliners beyond noting that they had hard lives. Psychological portraits are not forthcoming, much less any discussion of why it took the world so long to accept women comics who talked about their sexuality. Performers such as Barth (or Fields, who told jokes about her physical disability) have always existed, but their movement into the mainstream is a relatively new development. Apparently Fields and Barth came along just as society was beginning to enlarge its view of what was acceptable behavior in women.
The sentimentality of the revue is most wearing when it deals with the life of Sophie Tucker. The performer who called herself "the last of the red-hot mamas" left an infant son behind when she went on tour. The impact of this tragedy on her nearly 60-year career is explored in one scene so schmaltzy it would have been thrown off a vaudeville stage. Lucky for us actress Gwendolyn Jones has a voice the size of a Mack truck, the better to belt out "Red Hot Mama" and "Some of These Days." (Tucker recorded this last song, her signature tune, in 1911 on an Edison cylinder.)
She also gives a soul to Tucker's use of blackface. Although the performer was actually billed as "a manipulator of coon melodies," Jones' performance indicates that Tucker actually understood what a crime it was to appropriate black culture in her own act. And in the rare moment in which the stars effectively interact with each other in Sophie, Totie & Belle, the playwrights allow Barth to have the last word on the matter, summing up the racist atmosphere of the entertainment marketplace that, in some places, endures to this day. "Why is it," Barth wonders, "that it takes a fat Jewish broad impersonating a fat black broad to satisfy a bunch of thin white guys?"
At the Drama Center in Deerfield Beach, Sophie, Totie & Belle rises above its surroundings and even endures the bad wigs and low-rent costumes its actresses are forced to wear, along with the mediocre sound quality and the cheesy set. I didn't see the 1993 version of the show staged by Jan McArt but understand that this is a rewritten and re-staged production. The show has already been extended through mid-February (after January 2 it runs at the Wilton Playhouse), and its popularity will probably not be affected by my suggesting fine-tuning or better production values. But then, in the immortal words of Barth: "I don't mean to be vulgar; it just comes out that way."
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