In the era of ribald comics like Chris Rock, Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham (to say nothing of Howard Stern), it's difficult to be shocked by dirty words said from a stage.
But back in the early to mid 20th century, to hear four-letter words, including the f-bomb, live and in person, was enough to make some people swoon and some cops raid the joint.
It was even more startling when the words came from the rosy lips of the female persuasion.
That's what makes singer/comics Sophie Tucker, Totie Fields and Belle Barth such courageous pioneers in the field of blue humor. These ladies went where no woman had gone before and that's what makes them worthy of their own musical, Sophie, Totie and Belle, playing weekends through Nov. 22 at Jimmy Ferraro's Studio Theatre.
There's no record that the three ever met in life, so playwrights Joanne Koch and Sara Blancher Cohen have them meeting in death, specifically at the pearly gate, where they must audition to let one of them enter, with the other two, um, not.
It's a rather strained setup, with some ho-hum dialogue, but director Ferraro's four-person cast makes the best of it through sheer talent and moxie.
As they rehearse for their big audition, they tell each other snippets from their often tragic lives. Totie (Kathy McGuire) had one happy marriage, but multiple health problems and died at age 48. Sophie (Dee Etta Rowe) had a long life, multiple marriages, and success on stage and screen on two continents, but she was haunted by thoughts of the son she left behind at age 16. Belle (Sara DelBeato) had a tumultuous life and died in Miami Beach at age 59.
DelBeato landed the most outrageous and fun role as Belle, and, boy, does she make the most of it, strutting around the stage and casually spitting out obscenities, delivering dirty jokes with bluster and bravado, making obscene gestures and raunchy body moves, and earning the biggest laughs in the show. This Belle is one tough cookie — founder of "Ball Busters Anonymous," she brags — and proud of it. Her put-down of an obnoxious Texan during a Las Vegas gig is priceless. Insult comic Lisa Lampanelli owes Belle Barth a big one.
Rowe's Sophie is crass, but it's a refined crass. Calling herself (her character) ugly is a stretch for the beautiful Rowe, but her delivery of Aggravating Papa and Sophie's signature Some of These Days in a gorgeous contralto reminds that she's doing a characterization, not an impersonation.
McGuire's Totie is the lovable one of the bunch, always wanting everyone to get along. Totie's schtick was self-deprecation, bawdy on stage, but cleaned up for television, but McGuire's timing is sometimes just a little bit too off to always make it work, though she's simply adorable in the ensemble numbers.
Ryan Bintz does a fine job playing the various men in the lives of the three women, as well as doing his spotlight song, Big Connections, in style.
The show starts off a bit slow, but warms up as it goes along, really coming alive in the final moments.
It's easy to see why Sophie, Totie and Belle has been a big hit in South Florida, since that was the playground and home of Totie and Belle and a favorite stop for Sophie. It's also filled with Yiddish humor and pokes at the three women's Jewish heritage, always a winner along Florida's east coast.
Local audiences, especially those of a certain age, may remember Sophie, Totie and Belle from live performances, but for the rest of us, it's a good history lesson in the development of current humor.