Story: Five intrepid sisters from Iowa, driven by youngest sibling Effie’s desire to write, produce and star in her own shows, decide to take their self-made act on the road following the death of their widower father, “Pops.” Effie, her slow-thinking sister Ella (kicked in the head by a mule at age 5), the ‘beautiful one’ Lizzie, the ‘matronly’ eldest Jessie and the would-be comedienne Addie soon are performing around Iowa in the 1890s, hopeful of breaking into vaudeville.
Unfortunately, the Cherry Sisters seem to lack one important ingredient for success, namely talent. Undaunted by the tepid response of their neighbors, they forge forward, eventually meeting a slimy showman, also named Pops, who promises to get them to the big time.
He does, too, even landing them a coveted spot at impresario Oscar Hammerstein I’s financially troubled Olympia Music Hall on Broadway. Against all odds, the Cherry Sisters pack the place for several weeks. Their audiences, however, prefer to throw fruits, vegetables and more menacing projectiles at the young ladies, giving ‘thumbs down’ to Addie’s comedy routines, Effie’s musical compositions and Jessie’s monologues on proper society etiquette. How long can they endure such humiliation?
Highlights: Incredibly, Dan O’Brien’s witty and ingenious two-act comedy is based on a real-life family from late 19th century Iowa. He takes dramatic liberties with their chronology and the circumstances of their deaths, but his wondrous play, first presented at the 2010 Humana Festival in Louisville, brims with heart, pathos and humor.
The St. Louis premiere of The Cherry Sisters Revisited by R-S Theatrics, apparently the first professional production since its debut, is a deliciously surprising delight, buoyed by expert performances by director Kirsten Wylder’s smart, inventive cast.
Other Info: Wylder, an expert at comic delivery, shrewdly takes advantage of scenic designer Scott De Broux’s amusing and captivating set, comprised of a ramshackle barn front and amusing knickknacks that serve as impromptu props for the indomitable title characters. Coupled with Liz Henning’s inspired costumes, from dad Pops’ Irish-tinged clothing to the girls’ Midwest farm attire, the stage is set for unlikely adventures by the intrepid cast.
Mark Kelley adds some whimsical sound effects and Maria Straub provides the funky choreography that matches the overly optimistic imaginations of the Cherry Sisters with cruel reality. Musical director Leah Luciano and the cast provide ample pleasure in interpreting the vaudeville-styled music of Michael Friedman.
Best of all are the whimsical performances by the players. Rachel Tibbetts wins honors as the endlessly persevering Effie, whose wide-eyed ambitions and non-stop pluck are admirable for their blind courage in the face of an onslaught of negativity. Tibbetts conveys Effie’s implacable spirit with every winsome expression and every painfully awkward pirouette, priceless work, indeed.
Ellie Schwetye amusingly conveys the serious soul of Jessie, who’s not above accosting a suspicious man in the audience about heaving unwanted flotsam and jetsam in her direction. Nicole Angeli demonstrates her considerable comic flair as the semi-mute Ella, who can mysteriously sew the girls’ outfits, bang a drum or burst into sudden spasms of coherence like a clairvoyant savant.
Beth Wickenhauser brings an earnest endearment to Addie’s determination to do stand-up comedy even if she should quietly sit down, while Mollie Amburgey humorously takes on Lizzie’s role as the troupe’s singer and resident beauty, equipped with a dazzling smile and an obliviously cheery attitude.
And hindering all the sisters as best he can is the wily B Weller in two juicy roles, as their cigar-chomping, whiskey-swilling father who torments them beyond the grave, and as the slick, unsympathetic manager who wheedles what he can from his act, including a quickie marriage to Lizzie over the objections of the lovelorn Effie.
The Cherry Sisters Revisited has much to offer with a script that refuses taking any easy way out. Director Wylder makes the most of that opportunity, moving everything at a breezy clip and, with the help of her appealing cast, putting wide-eyed wonder front and center in the strange, fascinating world of the Cherry Sisters, then and now.
Play: The Cherry Sisters Revisited
Company: R-S Theatrics
Venue: The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive
Dates: June 13, 14, 15, 16
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Michael Young