By Dale King
The Delray Square Performing Arts Center has apparently saved its best of the 2014-2015 season for last. Sophie, Totie and Belle, a combination revue and musical featuring the “reincarnations” of Sophie Tucker, Totie Fields and Belle Barth, is playing through May 31. It’s a production well worth carving out some time to attend.
Three exceptionally talented performers reprise the song and story talents of this legendary trio who helped pave the way for the ascendancy of such successful comediennes as Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Bette Midler and Gilda Radner. The show’s musical numbers are deftly woven into a sharply written script with biographical overtones.
Don’t look for the Delray Square Performing Arts Center at its previous location. During the run of Shenandoah, structural damage forced the closing of the former multiplex cinema building that had housed the center. That led theater partners Gary Waldman and Jamison Troutman to quickly scout out a new venue in time to save the season.
They did it, but the opening of Sophie, Totie and Belle was delayed until April 10. The performance has nestled nicely into the Weisman Delray Community Center on West Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach. And while it may not be the perfect theatrical site, it’s certainly adequate.
As the show begins, Sophie, Totie and Belle find themselves in God’s waiting room. There, the Almighty is preparing to audition them for a special show in his club. But even God can only take one of them. So, the ladies have to make the stage resound with their best efforts. And these talented women do a heck of a job.
The show is not some slapdash endeavor. Waldman, who provides the voice of God and portrays all the male characters, has been involved with it since 2000 when he first directed and performed in an off-Broadway version. Joanne Koch and Sarah Blacher Cohen co-wrote this show and four others.
In S, T and B, Koch and Cohen entertainingly weave personal reminiscences around the stars’ onstage material to flesh them out without getting overly sentimental. But it’s the three performers who step up and deliver the goods.
Christie Oliver revives Totie Fields in all the comedienne’s comic self-parody. Like Fields, the singer/actress is tiny and somewhat rotund, but full of the same sweetness and satirical joy that made Fields a thrill, from the stage of the “Hollywood Palace” to the “Ed Sullivan Show.”
Stephanie Genovese is coolly sophisticated as Sophie Tucker, an iconic superstar who ruled the worlds of vaudeville, Broadway, radio, television and Hollywood in the early 20th century with her bold, bawdy and brassy style.
Belle Barth could have been Queen of Bawdy, and Stefanie Lamay captures her candor, grit and unshakeable frankness with unwavering style. She has lines that would make a sailor blush and tosses them out with nary a blink.
The production includes whole sections of each star’s act, songs that have become cult classics and jokes that have been told and retold. Yet, they seem fresh when uttered by these performers, who are good enough to evoke some of the aura of the real-life characters. And their voices are superb.
The comedic threesome kicks off the show with a great rendition of “What’s in a Life?” Totie chimes in with “All of Me,” sung with Waldman as her adored husband, bandleader George Johnson. Then, it’s Sophie’s turn to blast out “Red Hot Mama,” a song she refused to sing in the requisite blackface of the time. Belle then moves into the spotlight, underscoring her uninhibited delivery by singing, “I Call ‘Em Like I See ‘Em.” The singers ring down the imaginary curtain with “What Would I Do If I Couldn’t Perform?”
Act II is a bit less musical and a bit more biographical. It touches on some of the tragedies that befell all three. Fields’s health failed early. She lost a leg, had a cancerous breast removed and lost too much weight. She died at age 48.
Barth was married five times and spent a lot of time defending herself against lawsuits complaining about her act. She died in 1971 at 59, following an appearance at a Miami Beach nightclub.
Like Barth, Tucker was also known for her comical and risqué songs. The lady who earned the nickname “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” sings “I’m Living Alone and I Like It” before the trio is back on stage to perform the title song and wrap up two hours of delightful entertainment with a powerful rendition of “Some of These Days.”
Making the music work well throughout the show is pianist Mark Galsky, offering up just the right accompaniment for the singers.
Sophie, Totie and Belle plays through May 31 at the Delray Square Performing Arts Center in the Weisman Delray Community Center, 7091 W. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach. For tickets, call 561-880-0319.