Musicalfare’s 25th anniversary season comes to a rousing conclusion with its remounting of audience favorite “Sisters of Swing: The Andrews Sisters Musical.” I did not see this show when the theater first presented it in 2006, or its remount in 2007, much now to my chagrin. That production starred the veritable Kelly Meg Brennan, Kathy Weese and Debbie Pappas as the golden girls of World War II-era swing. It was, I’m sure, a delight.
Good thing for us, then, that their silver season included remounts of this gem and “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” another show about another singer of another era. While I had once scoffed, momentarily and to myself, at the possible waste of valuable creative time in remounting past hits – Why not produce two new hits? – I now take that back.
Both revivals offered a lens through which to revisit these familiar personalities. (Just imagine a supergroup of Holly and sisters LaVerne, Maxene and Patty, a punchy Stratocaster pouncing on that sunny Andrews blend.) This is the music of the past, sure, but they were celebrities just the same. Where “Buddy” chronicled the rise and fall of a promising lead singer of a background band, now beyond the point of cliché in these celebrity tell-alls, “Sisters of Swing” focuses on the relationships between these sisters as family members first, talented performers second. The desire to see them as predecessors to the Supremes, Destiny’s Child or the fantasized composite of their archetypes in “Dreamgirls,” is fair, though this isn’t the story this show tells, thank goodness.
Doug Weyand stages this production with a new trio of stars, each of whom stands capably in their predecessors’ shadows. Wendy Hall, Michele Marie Roberts and Renee Landrigan are our Laverne, Maxene and Patty, in descending order of age, spirit and spotlight. Their adapted character roles here are as cookie-cutter as it gets: Roberts pulls teeth with Maxene’s middle-sister frustration; Hall plays den mother to her younger sisters on the road; Landrigan gives her elders a run for their money. Together, they are realistic as complementary sisters. They look like they could be related – with support from Kari Drozd’s coordinated costumes and Susan Drozd’s buxom hair and wigs – and they sound sublime together, yet they remain three different women. You won’t have to adjust your glasses to notice their simultaneous bond and tension.
Beth Gilleland and Bob Beverage’s book helps these characters develop, too. There are more book scenes in this jukebox musical than we’re used to. Songs exist, as they did in “Buddy,” to mark the milestones of their career, and not to propel the story in any way. They are swift, tight and sweet, full of nostalgia, and they know when to enter the story and when to leave. The second act does play a bit long, though only in relation to the show’s own pacing; the performance clocks in at a typical two hours, not including intermission. The issue with these nostalgia shows, however, is that by the time we hit the halfway point, we not only already know the ending, we’ve already gotten our fill of what we came for. Weyend and his company keep things moving, so it’s only a script’s note.
If anything else feels just a little out of place, if only in a perfectly imperfect sort of way, it’s the sense that both Hall and Roberts are underutilized in their roles, or maybe that they’re just too good for the material. Roberts plays a conflicted, dramatic middle sister well enough, and her voice shines as always, even when properly blended in some of the best three-part harmony ever arranged, but I kept wanting her character to let her break out and belt out her frustration rather than pout from the sidelines. Or for Hall, in her delivery of oldest-sister discipline, to get better written lines than she gets. Gilleland and Beverage have constructed a breeze of a structure, but not the most brilliant of dialogue. If anything, this disappoints only the fan in me, knowing what these two actors are so great at doing. No major divots here, just an itch.
It’s Landrigan and ensemble member Nick Lama that really get the best material, and make the very most of it. (Philip Farugia, as a minor-role Vic Schoen and presiding pianist, is also fantastic, and also underserved by this script.) Landrigan’s angst flames Patty’s rebelliousness, and peps up more than a few drab scenes. Where the young actor has earned considerable roles in the last few seasons, and knows how to leave it all on the stage, this is a breakout kind of role for her. She can hold a stage and will easily carry a show in due time, as soon as she relaxes her shoulders just a bit. Lama, meanwhile, lets it all out as Everybody Else, a catchall that includes just about every character in the canon. It’s only a matter of time before a second revival comes around again, with younger actors paying homage to their fantastic performances.