The Last of the Red Hot Mamas

Hayes Theatre Co, February 16

Marika Aubrey in The Last of the Red Hot Mamas. Photo: Alek Mak

Marika Aubrey in The Last of the Red Hot Mamas. Photo: Alek Mak

Sophie Tucker (or Sonya Kalish as she started life) was born on the side of the road in the Ukraine into a dirt-poor Jewish family, who eventually migrated to America.

Fedko Kryczko entered the world in a neighbouring village around the same time “in circumstances similarly shitty” as his great-granddaughter Marika Aubrey put it. As a young man, Fedko fled to Australia where Aubrey was later born.

In her new cabaret show The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, Aubrey tells Tucker’s story in a fairly straightforward, linear fashion but weaves through it the story of Fedko and her own visit back to his Ukrainian village.

It brings a nice personal element to the show, giving it another dimension, though in the end it adds little to Tucker’s story and means there is less time to document her life in any depth.

We learn of Tucker’s tough beginnings, the discovery of her voice while singing for tips in her father’s kosher restaurant, the start of her career performing “coon” songs in blackface, and her metamorphosis into the renowned, outrageous star of 1920s vaudeville, known for her comic chops and risqué songs. Nicknamed The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, she was still performing into her late 70s.

Aubrey starts the night in a black and white satin dress with jewellery, headdress and long gloves then gradually removes articles until she is performing in vintage underwear.

Backed by a three-piece jazz band led by Bev Kennedy on piano, she sings a good, varied selection of songs associated with Tucker, among them “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”, “After You’ve Gone”, “The Man I Love”, “Hello My Baby”, “Some of These Days”, “My Yiddishe Momme” and “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love” – in which she showcases her own comic facility.

Aubrey has a big, clear singing voice, which she uses well. It’s higher pitched than Tucker’s husky, powerhouse instrument – something she addresses upfront with a quick, light-hearted aside to Kennedy about the key she’ll sing in.

She also has a big personality and commands the small space at the Hayes Theatre Co with ease. Her patter between the numbers is lively and she develops a warm rapport with the audience.

Inevitably, Aubrey is only able to skim the surface of Tucker’s life. What she tells us is fascinating but we are left feeling we’d like to know more. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining show by an assured, engaging performer.

Produced by Aubrey and Neil Gooding Productions in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers has been playing as the first of the Hayes’s Month of Sundays cabaret series. If you want to catch it, you’ll need to get cracking as there’s just one show left.

The Last of the Red Hot Mamas has its final performance at the Hayes Theatre Co, Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point on Sunday March 2 at 8.30pm. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

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Sweet Charity

Hayes Theatre Co, February 13

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Walking into the tiny theatre at Potts Point you are thrust straight into the world of Sweet Charity. A red neon sign reads “Girls, Girls, Girls”, the band is vamping, and the sexily clad ladies at the seedy Fandango Ballroom where Charity works are already on stage, enticing men from the audience to dance with them.

It’s the perfect start to a fabulous production of the 1966 musical (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, book by Neil Simon), brilliantly re-imagined by director Dean Bryant for the times and the intimate venue.

Produced by Luckiest Productions and Neil Gooding Productions, Sweet Charity is the first production for the new Hayes Theatre Co, which is turning the venue (formerly known as the Darlinghurst Theatre) into a home for small-scale musicals and cabaret.

Sweet Charity tells the story of a dance hall hostess with a heart of gold looking for love in all the wrong places. With its episodic structure, it’s not the greatest musical ever written, merely following Charity as she is dumped by a louse called Charlie, encounters suave Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal, and becomes engaged to neurotic accountant Oscar. But it’s joyous, funny and touching with some great songs including “Big Spender”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “The Rhythm of Life”.

Bryant has given the show a dirtier, grittier edge that makes it feel more current. It’s a small theatre for a musical but Bryant stages it ingeniously on Owen Phillips’s simple, grungy set (a few costume racks and some chairs), making inspired use of a couple of two-way mirrors. Ross Graham’s moody lighting is also impressive.

A small, sharp band, led by musical director Andrew Worboys on keyboards, sits at the back of the stage and there’s a cast of 12 but the production rarely feels squashed.

Occasionally you sense the dance routines longing to break out as in Bob Fosse’s famous, original choreography. However, Andrew Hallsworth has done a fantastic job of choreographing distinctive, tight little movements and routines, while his twist on the Rich Man’s Frug, with surrealistic costumes by Academy Award-winner Tim Chappel, works a treat.

The terrific new musical arrangements by Worboys (who also plays Fandango owner Herman) and Chappel’s witty, sexy costumes (with wigs by Ben Moir) heighten the edgy vibe perfectly.

In her little, red, lacy dress, Verity Hunt-Ballard is gorgeous as Charity, capturing her kookiness, sweetness, sunny optimism and vulnerability. In a production this gritty, Charity might perhaps have been a little more “shop soiled” but it’s a radiant, endearing performance; sensationally sung, danced and acted, with knockout comic timing.

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: supplied

Martin Crewes plays Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar and delineates them with wonderfully detailed performances, making us care about the dorky Oscar as well as Charity.

Debora Krizak is also a standout, doubling as Nickie, Charity’s hard-bitten friend at the Fandango Ballroom, and Ursula, Vittorio’s glamorous, jealous girlfriend (here with an English accent). My date for the evening didn’t realise they were the same performer. But the entire ensemble is on song.

Having begun with the stage buzzing, the production ends in poignant fashion with Charity alone on an empty stage: a powerful conclusion to a fresh, thrilling production.

Sweet Charity announces the arrival of an exciting new musical theatre initiative in Sydney in emphatic fashion. It has set the benchmark high. Don’t miss it.

Sweet Charity plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point until March 9. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

A slightly edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 16