The Cherry Sisters are terrible entertainment. The Cherry Sisters Revisited, on the other hand, is a thoughtful and funny musical (book by Dan O'Brien, music by Michael Friedman) about the stuff we're willing to ignore so that we can continue to believe we're pursuing our dreams. It's a kind of magic trick we do to avoid facing ugly realities.
And as hard as it may be to believe, the Cherry Sisters were real. They were five sisters from rural Iowa who ended up working the vaudeville circuit in the early 20th century, despite having no discernible talents. Their act consisted of bizarre melodramas written with girlish naiveté by the youngest Cherry, Effie; sternly worded and poorly reasoned homilies about manners penned and declaimed by Jessie; and vaguely dirty comic bits performed by Addie. Lizzie was the quintet's ersatz ingénue, and the mentally disabled (via a mule kick to the head) Ella served as the bass-drum-wielding hype woman.
In this R-S Theatrics production, Kirsten Wylder presents the siblings' story with a clear-eyed honesty about the women's skills, and a deep well of sympathy for the women themselves. They can't sing, they can't act, they can't tell a joke, but in Wylder's hands they aren't the punch line. It's an interesting balancing act to watch, and it's highly entertaining, to boot.
Rachel Tibbetts portrays Effie, the powerhouse dreamer of the family, with a bulldozer's-worth of enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is unbound by fact, which allows Effie to make pronouncements such as, "Every day an old actress dries up onstage like a raisin," with innocent sincerity. The girls haven't even left the barn yet, but in her mind there's a demand for their act. That's enough to convince the other Cherrys, and so five stars are born.
Their act, which we see in bits and pieces, is stillborn. Plodding, overwritten and unfunny, it entertains because it's so spectacularly bad. After kicking Ella out of the group in order to make the audience more comfortable with laughing at them, the Cherrys are soon on Broadway, performing eight shows a week behind protective netting so that none of the produce and garbage chucked at them causes physical injury. Mental injury — well, that's another matter.
As they huddle backstage wondering what just happened, their slick manager, Pops (the delightfully oily B. Weller), convinces them that "this is how they love you in New York — they feed you!" Effie is smart enough to know that's not true, but what about her sisters? Are they so eager for a life in showbiz that they buy Pops' story, or are they merely foolish? Effie wants this life so desperately that she chooses to believe Pops and doesn't press her sisters to explain why they agree to continue. It's enough for her that the show goes on — and so on it goes, much longer than any bad joke should.
As the chirpy Addie, Beth Wickenhauser drops quite a few perilously funny lines, most often double entendres that are dirtier than her character perhaps realizes. There's no doubt that Lizzie (Mollie Amburgey) knows why the men are laughing. Lizzie is as worldly as one can expect for a rural Iowa gal, but she's still "delightfully dim" (in the words of Pops), and she's a profoundly grating singer — something of a triple threat, you might say. Jessie (Ellie Schwetye) is much sharper, and the first to challenge the crowd when the fruit flies. Her favored defense is a stern, insulting offense, as she verbally assaults the audience's morals, intelligence and looks. Don't make eye contact with her during the harangue or you're next.
And then there's Ella (Nicole Angeli). Awkward and quiet because of her injury, Ella has gained second sight, or so the girls believe. Her wits come and go in flashes, but so does the future. She knows what's coming for the Cherrys and makes her own choice to leave the act. Being incapable of deluding herself, there's no place for Ella in show business.