Directed by Thomas W. Jones II
Book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II
Music by William Hubbard
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Three Sistahs, yes, the show is back at MetroStage, featuring the fabulous Bernadine Mitchell. Indulge yourself and see it again. What? You didn’t see it the first time? What are you waiting for? Nominated for a Helen Hayes, Three Sistahs is a dream of a show that’s got everything working for it — award winning cast, original score by William Hubbard who is one of the most creative musical directors around town, Thomas W Jones II working his usual playful (sometimes manic?) magic with an original script, and did I mention that Bernadine Mitchell is back in town? I did? No problem. She’s worth the repetition.
Actually, in all fairness the other cast members more than hold their own. One can just as easily say the show features the legendary Crystal Fox who actually had a stint in Chekov’s Cherry Orchard at Round House, or the incredible Felicia Curry whose vocals tore down the house in Two Queens, One Castle. The soul-stirring tonality of these three Divas, I mean Sistahs, will set your toes to tapping, your hands to clapping, even tears to flowing while guiding you to rhythms you didn’t even know you had. Yes, they’re that good.
The premise is tangentially a take off on Chekov but just in broad strokes. The similarly named characters are in somewhat parallel situations-Mitchell plays Olive, who is the eldest (single) academic, Fox, the middle sister Marsha, is coming to terms with her disenchanting marriage, and Curry is the vitriolic baby sister Irene striving to find her place in the world. The sisters have returned to their father’s house a year after his death, but this time to bury their brother Andre, a casualty of the Vietnam war. Their first entrance is from various corners of the theater dressed in somber funeral attire singing a touching gospel laced “In My Father’s House,” ending in the aisle lined up on stair-step. Their contemplative, reflective mood sets the tone-each character reaches tenderly, gently and longingly into space as if to touch remnants of the past from their father’s house, a motion that they reprise at various places in the script, including the end, just one of the many sparkling gems of Jones’ direction.
The sisters reminisce about growing up in the house, relaying scenes from the early days, antics with Momma and Daddy including raucous memories of “Basement Kind of Love,” a fun filled romp, recalling the light bulbed, steamy adolescent gropings of many a teen party. Mitchell’s priceless rendition of “Barely Breathing” left many of us doubled over barely breathing ourselves. Amidst the fun and frivolity, in true family form, it doesn’t take long before the banter takes on more weight. Accusations start to fly about who was (or wasn’t) there for their father at the end, the disposition of the house, who had the right to make the decisions, and who didn’t have a say. Everybody has a story, and for the most part, the play (story by Janet Pryce) weaves the various storylines into a coherent whole.
Admittedly, some transitions are a bit bumpy, but not enough to be too distracting. It’s an original script, one that is undergoing rewriting and reshaping. In fact, a fun benefit of seeing it again from the original 2002 production is to witness the shift in focus. The earlier version brought in more character storyline elements delving into the relationships, secrets, and the past. But that was then. This version, while streamlined seems more sketchy in that it skips merrily across the top of some gaspingly tough moments. On more than one occasion, characters bounce from tough emotional scenes to fluffy recollections without sufficient recovery time. Nevertheless, the issues are rock solid and include references to assassinations of both Kennedys (John F. and Bobby), and King as well as the devastating riots. While the writer’s attempt to zoom from the national turmoil to internal motivations and struggle is laudable, it’s a lot. The script also explores the motivations of young men going off to war, the sometimes strained relationships between fathers and sons, explosive family dynamics and the strength to just get on with it. The two triangular folded American flags on the mantle for the father who returned from his war and the son who didn’t anchor the play with the gravitas of such unasked questions as whose war is it anyway? This symbol of unspeakable loss is more poignant now than ever. It’s an ambitious project to pull all this together, with piped in accompaniment to the musical numbers, and the final results are worth a couple of bumpy transitions.
Besides, where else can you hear some of the finest voices to grace a stage belt out to the rafters, crest and moan in solo or blend together as one? What these women can do to caress a lyric and jam together in a tribal fusion of gospel, funk and jazz must be seen to be believed. The sistahs have their way with the music in the comforts of the artfully designed wood-planked set by Jonathan Williamson. Even the size and shape of MetroStage lends itself perfectly to getting into the heart of this musical drama.
Reprising Three Sistahs to open the season is a home coming of sorts, with its focus on family, relationships, reconciling with life and one’s own choices. Three Sistahs is a fitting tribute to a timeless classic, a reflection of the abundant artistry at MetroStage, and just a damn good time.
(Running time: 2:15 with 1 intermission) Three Sistahs is playing at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria through September 9th. Showtimes are Thursday-Saturday 8pm, Saturday-Sunday matinees 3pm, Sunday 7pm. For ticket information, call 800-494-8497 or consult the Metrostage website.