“The Cherry Sisters Revisited” isn’t quite like anything else I’ve seen, but it does express the quirkiness and willingness to take chances that R-S has displayed in the past with such choices as “9 Circles,” “Suicide Inc.,” “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” “The Adding Machine” and “Gruesome Playground Injuries”. This one is carefully considered and mostly well executed as those were, but unlike them, it misses more than it hits.
The biggest problem here is that the hybrid play/musical is based on one joke, and that joke exhausts its laughs long before the final curtain. It also has what I found to be an uneasy mix of comedy and tragedy, or perhaps pathos is more accurate. I guess it would be possible to see it as an intentional mess to reflect its subject, but I don’t think that’s the purpose. The story is of five sisters whose drunk dad is found dead at the top of the show, but then goes on to be pretty chatty. As the ghost of “Pops,” B. Weller sports a drunken leprechaun look in Irish farmer’s garb tricked out with small liquor bottles (one of the sisters says that way they can hear him coming) and a tattered sash made of the Irish flag to reflect his heritage.
Pops has blamed Effie (Rachel Tibbetts) the youngest and smartest of the girls for her mother’s death in childbirth because of her “big head.” Effie often speaks of it herself. He tells her that they’re all dead, which of course, since they were born in the 19th century, they are. But then we jump right into their story which creates an artistic dissonance, for me at least. We learn the family farm is in Iowa, but the sisters are eager to escape it, and Effie has a vivid imagination and bent for story-telling, so they head off for the county fair, then on to Cedar Rapids, and from there, the vaudeville circuit with a stand in New York under the aegis of no less than Oscar Hammerstein who likes the act.
The program lists writer credits as if this were a musical, which it isn’t though it has music in it attributed to composer Michael Friedman. As author of the “Book,” Dan O’Brien hasn’t paid much attention to the sisters’ real-life birth order because two of them were younger than Effie, but that’s of little importance. Here, the uptight Jessie (a severe Ellie Schweyte) seems to be the mother figure, and presumably the eldest. Lizzie, the “almost pretty” one seems to be the youngest, and Addie (Beth Wickenhauser) and Ella (Nicole Angeli) are in the middle. Addie seems like a fairly sensible girl, at least as Cherry family members go, and Ella is mentally slow. She starts out with the group, but after negative reactions from audiences, she goes home. She is, however a wise fool who appears to have second sight because she knows what’s coming before it actually happens, prefiguring a resonant scene at the end.
It seems to take a long time to get to that end. A lot of the first act is quite humorous; the second is hampered by people dropping dead. Besides Ella’s Cassandra-like behavior, another supernatural element is introduced by B. Weller’s other character, Myron Abramowitz who is called “Pops.” Coincidence? Well, I don’t know. I liked the original Pops better than Pops 2.0 but the first one pops up later too. The central conceit is that the act is so terrible that people love to hate it. If that seems far-fetched, it isn’t. In the mid-1960s, there was a popular singer called “Mrs. Miller” whose fame was built on her being awful, and the Cherry Sisters are like that. People throw produce at them, and “Pops” convinces them it’s a sign that they’re good. The act is part songs, part comedy, a playlet, and a homily by Jessie on some aspect of manners. It’s funny, but it’s uncomfortable to laugh at people who genuinely think they’re talented.
Soon, there comes a contradiction that I won’t discuss in detail, but it completely turns everything we’ve been led to believe upside down, and the play goes into free fall from there. Act II seems padded (how many Midwestern cities can you name while pretending to ride a train?) and the whole thing limps across the finish line. Still, these are excellent performances, better than the material deserves. Weller is his reliable self for R-S; he’s been in most of the shows. Wickenhauser is new to me, but she’s grounded and believable. Schwetye provides a lot of the fun with her Victorian schtick, and Tibbetts is the heart of the show. She overdoes it a bit toward the last, but she’s still fine. Angeli has a ball with Ella, and she’s hilarious, but director Kirsten Wylder may be letting her get away with too much mugging.
As a first time professional director, Wylder has done a good job with difficult material. Since I’ve long been a fan of her work onstage, it’s easy to see a little bit of her comedy style in each sister. The pacing may be off here and there, but she creates finely nuanced characters who, no matter how foolish they may seem, don’t go completely outside the bounds of credibility. It’s tough for good singers to sound bad and accomplished dancers to look awkward, but these actors manage with help from Leah Luciano as music director and Maria I. Straub as choreographer. Mark Kelley designed the sound consisting of old vaudeville tunes, as well as various effects, and E Henning’s costumes are a high point of the production on Scott De Broux’s suitably shabby set. Ann Rapko has the assistant director credit.
“The Cherry Sisters Revisited” is strange fruit, but it is an intriguing concept and has an interesting cast. It only runs one more weekend (though June 16), so if you want to see it, hurry up..