Thursday, July 7, 2011

Perfect harmony at Stoneham

The talented cast of Sisters of Swing.
I had a nice time at Stoneham Theatre's Sisters of Swing: The Story of the Andrews Sisters (which plays through July 24). And I have a hunch that if you're of a certain age (like me - although I'm hardly old enough to remember these hits from the first time around!), then you will, too.  It's a gently, but genuinely, entertaining evening out.

Does that sound like faint praise?  It's not meant to - although I have to also say that if you're looking for genuine drama, you should look elsewhere; writers Beth Gilleland and Bob Beverage pitch their joint effort as more of a revue than an actual play, and don't mine much conflict from their story in any case - even though one simmered pretty openly in the sisters' later years, bubbling largely around Patty, the youngest, prettiest, and blondest of the trio, who tended to style herself the group's star (and eventually tried to go solo).  But Patty, God bless her, is actually still with us (at the age of 93!); and perhaps in deference to her, Gilleland and Beverage draw a discreet veil over the inner dynamics of the Andrews act - indeed, we generally only hear about the various bumps in the sisters' personal and professional lives in disconnected snippets; it's entirely up to us to connect the dots.

Not that we much feel like doing so.  The Andrews Sisters were certainly no more personally flawed than your average singing act - and probably a good deal less flawed; after all, they managed to live and work together in relative harmony for something like two decades.  Still, the playwrights have to write something, so they cover their lack of conflict with vignettes painting the sisters as pioneers against anti-Semitism and racism; but while I imagine the sisters were, indeed, patriotic, open-minded girls who believed in opportunity for everybody, I don't think they were exactly crusaders.  You could write a fascinating play about the unhappy compromises mainstream acts like the Andrews Sisters made with entrenched prejudice in the 40's - but Sisters of Swing ain't it.

No, the core of this show is not the sisters' story but their music, served straight up, with only a shot of nostalgia as chaser, and the Stoneham cast and backup band (led by music director Mario Cruz, who tickles the ivories onstage) deliver a quite convincing simulation of their famous sound.  Singing actresses Laura DeGiacomo (Patty), Kerri Jill Garbis (LaVerne) and Kimberly Robertson (Maxene) share a sweet stage rapport, can handle the syncopated dancing, and pretty much nail the smoothly integrated harmonies the girls were famous for.  (Their sunny confidence may derive from the fact that they've done all this before - Sisters of Swing is essentially a reprise of a Stoneham hit from a few years back.)  Perhaps the versatile Steve Gagliastro - who basically plays every guy the girls ever met - is less successful at conjuring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, but he's a skillfull comic and certainly up for anything (including an appearance as Carmen Miranda).  And Stoneham's six-piece band, thanks in part to some high-quality arrangements, does evoke the big-band sound that backed the sisters up.  Indeed, the show only hits its real stride when it offers a pretty-much sung-through evocation of the tour the Andrews Sisters put together during World War II to entertain the troops.

Those troops got to hear a lot of great material, because the sisters had quite the catalogue of hits, among them "I Can Dream, Can't I?," "Accent-uate the Positive" (which they sang on vinyl, of course, with Bing Crosby), "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else But Me," and the perennially kicky "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B."  These all get a full-throated treatment at Stoneham, and leave the audience happy and satisfied.  So what if the show is dramatically under-powered?  Sometimes you have to accent-uate the positive, e-lim-inate the negative, and not mess with Mr. In-Between.

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