As a precursor to all the theater holiday cheer, two shows opened last weekend that are decidedly not linked to this time of year: Sophie Tucker: American Legend at the Phoenix Theatre and Camelot at Footlite Musicals.
Nathan Welch as Lancelot in Footlite’s ‘Camelot’
Sophie Tucker is a performer of legendary stature from the early part of the 20th century. The large woman overcame many obstacles in her life to be a huge success in theater, performing in vaudeville-like shows. At a time when divorce was scandalous, she birthed her one son in her teens, left him to be raised by her immigrant parents and made her way through three husbands. Chuck Goad directs Su Ours as the unstoppable Red Hot Mamma, a rough broad with a tough life, accompanied by Paul Galloway on piano. Bawdy songs are interspersed with slightly naughty jokes, as well as glimpses into Tucker’s life. The show is set late in Tucker’s career, and she reminisces as well as entertains. Su Ours seems somewhat restrained as Tucker — her shoulder shimmies are almost demur and her delivery more matter-of-fact as opposed to in-your-face. However, she comes off as a very likable character, and has a good time with her audience. Her timing the night I attended was slightly off, but having attended on a preview night, I hope for smoother performances later. Galloway, while impeccable on the piano, looks a bit frightened when delivering lines. His finesse with the keyboard hasn’t yet translated to comfort as an actor. Tucker’s frocks are wonderfully outlandish thanks to Martin Bowman, and the set is lovely, thanks to Greg Haydock. Sophie Tucker: American Legend continues at the Phoenix, 749 N. Park Ave., through Dec. 21; 635-PLAY, www.phoenixtheatre.org. A silent auction of holiday items is up through Dec. 21; call the box office for information. Camelot, always a trusted musical favorite, brings to life the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Footlite presents a solid rendition of the show, with no surprises, and a set my friend Adrian described as “your money pit’s duct work during its first inspection.” Um, those are supposed to be trees. When it comes to standouts in the show, first and foremost is R. Brian Noffke as Pellinore, sporting a theme-park trinket: an invisible dog. Noffke steals every scene he is in as the daft, blustery but sweet-hearted Pellinore. Cindy Johnson is a cute and catty, just a touch dingy, Guenevere — and does an excellent job with her vocal duties. Nathan Welch is an arrogant yet Stoic Lancelot, and also proves his vocal prowess. Chris Arthur as Mordred has the most charisma of the bunch, oozing evil in his few scenes. David Wood as Arthur is sweet, but when made to carry the stage alone, something goes lacking. A note: Often, when the actors moved away from the front of the stage, their voices were lost. Per usual, the orchestra was too loud and whiffed some notes here and there. Also per usual, the costumes were picture perfect, thanks to Julie Powers. Camelot, directed by Rory Shivers and Ed Trout, continues at Footlite Musicals, 1847 N. Alabama St., through Dec. 7; call 926-6630, www.footlite.org.