The energy and charm of the History Theatre’s reprise of Sisters of Swing transcend nostalgia. The immensely entertaining show, written by Beth Gilleland and Bob Beverage, premiered at the History Theatre in 2002.
When I went to the 2002 production, I brought my mother, who a longtime fan of the Andrews Sisters. The 2002 production was knee-deep in nostalgia. The nostalgic appeal of the show is still strong, as evidenced by the mostly senior audience at Sunday’s performance, but I found myself enjoying this production as a work on its own merit.
|sisters of swing, playing through december 20 at the history theatre. for tickets ($28-$32) and information, see historytheatre.com.|
The show follows the singing trio, sisters Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne, from their earliest days—winning a talent contest at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis—through their recording success in the 1930s and their USO tours during World War II. Many of the scenes are used to set up performances of the trio’s numerous hit songs. The weaving of the songs into the trio’s success story works well, for the most part. Despite the need to set up each scene for a song, the audience gets a hint that the sisters’ lives growing up were not always picture-perfect; they had an overprotective father whose control over them bordered on the unhealthy. Because of their father’s opposition to Maxene’s marriage to the trio’s manager, music publishing giant Lou Levy (her father threatened Levy with a gun when Levy asked for Maxene’s hand), Maxene secretly wed Levy and kept the fact hidden from her family for years.
What makes this production work so well are the performances of Ruthie Baker (Patty), Stacey Lindell (Maxene), and Patty Nieman (LaVerne). Their singing is first-rate, with an especially strong vocal performance from Baker. More importantly, the three actresses, with great charm, each create a separate character while having great chemistry together. I don’t know what the original Andrews Sisters were like, but the sisters portrayed by Baker, Lindell, and Nieman are exuberant and full of life. Jan Puffer’s chorography for the show complements the sisters’ enthusiastic style.
Ari Hoptman plays virtually all the male roles in the play, and he is very humorous in some of these roles. I do think, however, the production may have worked better with a separate actor playing the role of Lou Levy, Maxene’s husband. After all, Levy considered himself to be the “fourth Andrew Sister.” More importantly, Hoptman’s casting makes Levy seem to be a much older man; in reality, Levy was only a few years older than Maxene.
The show has several comic scenes, but a couple of the scenes interrupted the flow of the story. For example, when the cast performed “Beer Barrel Polka,” Hoptman came out dressed as a Beer Maid and audience members went up on stage to dance. Although attempts at audience interactions should be encouraged in theater, during this scene I felt the actors fell out of character and it disrupted the intensity of the scenes that had just occurred.
Ironically, the intensity of the show decreases just as the drama of the sisters’ lives increases. After the end of World War II, the play goes into high speed, covering the sisters’ marriages, divorces, and the breakup of their act. The songs the Andrew Sisters sang may not have fit well with their later life drama, but after getting to know the sisters, it was unsatisfying not to learn more of their later years and the reasons for their estrangement. But one scene in the later part of the show was extremely entertaining: the “Carmen Boogie” number where the sisters musically recount how Patty uses a baseball bat to hunt down her husband, Marty Melcher, who had left Patty for Doris Day. Ruthie Baker is clearly having great fun during this romp.
You don’t need to be part of, or even interested in, the “Greatest Generation” to enjoy this production. Just sit back and let the “sisters” entertain you—which, it appears, is what the Andrews Sisters did best.
|This event is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.|