You wouldn't ordinarily associate Jewish humor with earthy, raunchy comedy, but three comediennes of decades past weren't above mixing the two. Sophie Tucker, Totie Fields and Belle Barth all spiced old-fashioned ethnic comedy with racier material -- at a time when even most male comics were still PG-rated. Fields faced even further obstacles later in her career, when diabetes forced the amputation of her leg.
Now the styles of all three laugh-getting ladies are on view in a new Off-Broadway tribute show, Sophie, Totie & Belle, which started previews March 8 for an official opening March 15 for an open run at Theatre Four. Jay H. Harris, Gary Waldman, Jamison Troutman and Kathi & Alan Glist are producing the piece, which stars regional actresses Gwendolyn Jones as Sophie, Kathy Robinson as Totie and Jo Ann Cunningham as Belle. Daniel Neiden plays "All the Men in Their Lives."
Joanne Koch and Sarah Blacher Cohen's penned the book for STB, which has the ticklesome trio meeting in the afterlife and reminiscing about their careers and personal difficulties. As such, we get to hear Tucker belt out her 40s-era hits, "Some of These Days" and "Red Hot Mama"; Barth tell her shamelessly naughty jokes; and Fields talks about her experiences with self-mocking humor.
Robert Craig Dawson choreographs, and Jon Delfin serves as musical director for the piece, which is staged by producer Waldman. Other plays by Koch include Safe Harbor, which was staged at Chicago's Organic Theatre, and Nesting Dolls. Cohen collaborated with Isaac Bashevis Singer on the musical comedy, Schlemiel the First.
According to spokesperson Joan Spector, Sophie, Totie & Belle was a hit in Florida, playing three months in Deerfield Beach, followed by three more months at Fort Lauderdale's Wilton Playhouse. Spector said she was drawn to the material because, "These were three very strong women. They were all bawdy and tough on stage, but they all had difficult personal lives. Sophie was a torch singer of the first order. Belle used language -- you were shocked. Back then, it was mindblowing that anybody talked that way. Both of them had ratty husbands. As tough as they all were on stage, they were marshmallows with their men. Totie -- who was clean on TV but not in her nightclub act -- had a very supportive husband, but she was heavy-set and hated herself. Her humor was very self-deprecating, and deep down, that probably didn't make her too happy."
Tickets are $40-$45. Theatre Four is located at 424 West 55th Street. For information, call (212) 239-6200.
-- By David Lefkowitz