Tag Archives: Wendy Westerwelle

Sophie Tucker and American blackface

Wendy Westerwelle as Sopie Tucker in "Soph: A n Evening With the Last of the Red-Hot Mamas." Photo: Triangle Productions/John Rudoff, MD.

By Bob Hicks

Twenty-six years after she first impersonated the fabulous Sophie Tucker onstage, the big-talented Portland singer and comedian Wendy Westerwelle’s return to Soph: An Evening with the Last of the Red-Hot Mamas is a revival in more than one way. It marks Westerwelle’s own continuing return to the spotlight following her bravura turn earlier this year in Martin Sherman‘s one-woman play Rose (which I wrote about here and here) as well as a revival of interest in Tucker, a giant of 20th century American entertainment who has been lamentably overlooked in the years since her death in 1966. (She was born in 1886 in the Ukraine but arrived soon after in Hartford, Connecticut, where her family went into the restaurant business and young Sophie began singing for tips.)

You can catch up with my review of Soph for The Oregonian here, then stick around for a ramble through the pop-history parade. Westerwelle’s performance has got me to thinking about yet another revival of sorts, a historical reminder of the changing cavalcade of American popular culture and the important if sometimes embarrassing spectacle of facing up to what we’ve been as a nation and what it means to what we are now.

Movie poster for "The Jazz Singer," 1927. Wikimedia Commons.Soph is primarily a celebration of Tucker’s bawdy wit and rollicking style; Westerwelle isn’t looking to uncover any demons or wag her finger at the occasional ruthlessness that Tucker employed in pursuit of her career. But to Westerwelle’s credit, and to the credit of director Don Horn, who had a big hand in reshaping the script, neither does she shy from a few uncomfortable facts, such as Tucker’s vaudeville beginnings performing “coon songs” in blackface. It was a standard format in vaudeville, the grinning minstrelsy and exaggerated drawls of the happy watermelon-loving “colored folk” as performed by white (and sometimes black) entertainers.

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Keep on truckin’, Scatter: grinding gears with OBT, Polaris, Sophie and Do Jump!

By Bob Hicks

Shocking as it may seem, sometimes the denizens of Art Scatter World Headquarters don’t give it away for free.

Performers: Andrea Lawhead, Brittany Walsh, Nicolo Kehrwald, Wendy Cohen, Tia Zapp, and Molly Courtney in Do Jump!'s "Greatest Hits for the Holidays." Photo by Jim Lykins“If I can’t sell it gonna keep sittin’ on it, never gonna give it away,” the hard-bitten narrator of the bawdy blues tune Keep on Truckin’ declares. Her hardcore-capitalist sentiment is definitely not the motto at Art Scatter, where we tend to write what we write just because it sends little shivers up and down our spines. Still, we have an abiding fondness for those stalwarts of the heritage media who help us keep the spring in our mattress by paying cash on the barrel head for written contributions. O admirable concept! Here are a few recent pieces wherein we’ve made the noble trade of play for pay. We thank the editors of The Oregonian for assigning these exercises in fundamental free trade, and the publisher for his largesse:

  • A third of a century in, the prestidigious performance troupe Do Jump! just keeps getting better. Mr. Scatter reviews the company’s lighter-than-air holiday show. Catch it if you can.
  • Martha Ullman West, Art Scatter’s chief correspondent and maker of one mean seafood stew, reviews the old reliable Nutcracker and the new kid on the Oregon Ballet Theatre block, a witty grown-up revue with the dancers and singer Susannah Mars. As those TV guys say, thumbs up.
  • Mr. Scatter takes in Repo, the latest show from Polaris Dance Theatre, and reviews it.
  • More than a quarter-century after she first hit the stage in Soph, trouper Wendy Westerwelle once again embodies the amazing Sophie Tucker, last of the red-hot mamas — this time in a leaner, more intimate show. Mr. Scatter compares and reviews.

Grab a seat and come along for the ride. We’ll be truckin’ ’til the break of day.


Andrea Lawhead, Brittany Walsh, Nicolo Kehrwald, Wendy Cohen, Tia Zapp, and Molly Courtney in Do Jump!’s “Greatest Hits for the Holidays.” Photo: Jim Lykins.

‘Rose’: a flower among the thorns

Benedict Nightingale, reviewing the new London theater season for the New York Times in 1999, put his finger on the big trouble with Rose, Martin Sherman’s one-woman play about an 80-year old Holocaust survivor sitting on a park bench in Miami and remembering the high and low points of her extraordinary life.

Wendy Westerwelle stars in "Rose"“Rose’s life sometimes seems too exemplary to be true,” Nightingale writes. “Add some convenient coincidences to her tale — like meeting a bitter old shopkeeper in the Arizona desert and realizing he is the spouse she thought she had lost to Dachau — and Rose could easily be a case study rather than a character.”

But Nightingale also saw beyond Sherman’s desire to embrace the entirety of the post-Holocaust Jewish dilemma in a single overstuffed play, instead championing the drama’s extraordinary heart and the quietly stunning performance of its star, Olympia Dukakis — “the permafrost beneath the surface, the Siberia in her soul.”

He praised Rose for its “always lively, often distressing, sometimes hauntingly strange observation,” and concluded: “If you think that sedentary bravura is a contradiction in terms, this should change your mind.”

England liked Rose. It was nominated for the Olivier Award for best new play, and moved in 2000 to New York, again with Dukakis, where its reception was chillier. Bruce Weber, also writing in the New York Times, reacted like this: “(H)er story resonates on the tired frequency of a lecture about the wages of forgetting the past. If you are not of a certain age, you may react to her as a child to a relative who has overtaken one too many family gatherings: Yes, Grandma. Now can we go out and play?”

Then, echoing a theme sounded by several reviewers, he lamented the script’s streaks of jokiness amid the general despair: “Either Mr. Sherman is talking through her, or else in the year it took Rose to become fluent in English, she assimilated a lifetime of Borscht Belt humor.”

Well, maybe. But then, Rose is 80 years old when she sits shiva on that park bench, and she’s lived in America for most of her adult life. And Borscht Belt humor doesn’t come just from the Catskills. The Catskills are only a pipeline to older places and older times, where that peculiarly Jewish humor of survivors’ exaggeration was born and nourished before it immigrated to summer camps on American lakes. So Rose couldn’t be a little funny? So she shouldn’t be a little funny? Jews have been laughing about the unlaughable for a long, long time. It’s one way you get through.

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Wendy & Waggie: play it one more time

Wendy Westerwelle stars in Martin Sherman's "Rose." Photo: Don Horn/Triangle Productions!

Blink, and it’s 1984 all over again.

Over here: Waggie and Friends, skipping sweetly through the landmines of improv comedy, quick wits and crack timing in tow.

Over there: Brassy Wendy Westerwelle, going for the gold in a one-woman show.

Turn off the radio, will you, please? Sounds like they’re playing Karma Chameleon again.

No, this is not an April Fools joke. Through some sort of cosmic coincidence, the ghosts of Portland past are flitting across the city’s stages starting tonight. The sweetly funny Waggie, pioneers of comedy improv in Stumptown (they were the first group to bring TheatreSports to town) are taking over the Brody Theater stage for a two-nights-only reunion Thursday and Friday.

Waggie and FriendsAnd Westerwelle, the irrepressible onetime Storefront stalwart who scored a big hit with her Sophie Tucker show Soph: A Visit With the Last of the Red Hot Mamas, takes on a very different personality in the Northwest premiere of Martin Sherman‘s play Rose, opening Friday at CoHo Theater.


Waggie’s reunion gig at the Brody is a smash before it opens: both nights are sold out, and, as producer Domeka Parker says, she has “a waiting list for the waiting list.” The good news: there’s already talk about scheduling more dates, although nothing’s settled yet.

Waggie was so good and so influential in Portland not just because it was early to the improv game but also because its performers were seasoned veterans of the legit stage; actors who had both dramatic and comic chops. Domeka Parker’s parents, Scott Parker and Victoria Parker-Pohl, were core members, and they’ll be joined onstage by fellow alums David Fuks, Eric Hull, Cindy Tennant and Bob Zavada. Original funnyman Gary Basey couldn’t make the trip from his California home. His spot is being taken for these shows by a shirttail Wagger, Domeka Parker’s cousin Ian Karmel, who is a Groundlings alumnus and a member of her improv group, the Gallimaufry. (The younger Parker may not have been born in a suitcase, but she was “raised in the throes of improv,” and she’s become an improv performer and teacher herself: “I cannot escape it, and I promise you … I have tried.”)

Waggie, which stayed together until the mid-1990s, worked up a fine sweat on the TheatreSports circuit, playing tournaments in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Edmonton and Calgary. It opened shows for the likes of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, and cartoonist Lynda Barry. And it performed plenty of shows for the home crowd, including some memorable New Year’s Eve gigs.

Obviously people remember, and they’re eager to turn back the clock. Let’s just leave Kenny Loggins and Duran Duran out of it, though, shall we?


In England, Martin Sherman’s Rose was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award as best new play in 2000. It hasn’t enjoyed such a welcoming reception in the United States.

“No one in this country has done it, except Olympia Dukakis,” Westerwelle said a couple of weeks ago over coffee and tea at Costello’s Travel Caffe. “And I talked with her on the phone yesterday, for 20 minutes. I don’t know how I got hold of her. I just called everyone I know across the country, I said, ‘How do I get hold of Olympia Dukakis?’ And I did.”

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