KPBS AIRDATE: August 17, 2001
Okay, here’s the premise. A really tight-harmony singing group that ended its career prematurely is getting ready to make a comeback. Sound familiar? It’s awfully hard not to make comparisons, no matter how much co-creator Stuart Ross protests. Though he and partner Mark Hampton have been toying with the story of the Boswell Sisters for years, it’s impossible not to the think of that other Ross invention, the ever-popular perennial, “Forever Plaid.” Same story. Only that one was pure fiction, and this one’s based on fact, though it’s mostly fantasy.
Martha, Vet and Connee Boswell grew up in New Orleans, and made an enormous, musical splash in the 1920s and ’30s, with their unique and original blend of jazz, blues, gospel, harmony and humor. They became wildly popular millionaires, performing with Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers and Artie Shaw. They cut many albums and influenced gobs of singers (from Ella Fitzgerald to those wacky Plaids). But after only a decade together, they stopped singing in 1936, and relegated themselves to the record remainder bin. Middle sister Connee continued a solo career; Connee, the one with the physical disability, the one who had special seats made to match her costumes so no one knew she was in a wheelchair.
In this treacly, invented plotline, Connee is asked to perform for a postwar March of Dimes benefit, and she’s afraid to appear onstage as some sort of ‘poster child.’ So she calls her sisters back for a command performance. All three talk directly to the audience, didactically delivering the requisite backstory and exposition.
We’re like voyeurs at a family reunion which, except for the singing, is none too scintillating. We’re privy to a draggy, hour-long first act of do-you-remembers and coy rehearsal resistance, mercifully interspersed with flawless harmonies on a catalogue of songs taken from the Boswells’ real-live repertoire: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “The Heebie Jeebie Blues,” “When I Take My Sugar to Tea,” and 19 more. Thrilling vocal gymnastics, finger-snappin’ syncopated rhythms, a boffo backup band. But after awhile, it all starts sounding soporifically similar — slow starts building up to jazzy finishes. And it sounds awfully similar to the Plaids — even including a dorky audience singalong. Although the arrangements are often heavenly and the voices are divine, the script is tediously earth-bound and the whole venture might work better as a one-act revue.
The set, lighting, costumes and staging are generally uninspired. Even the characters are ill-defined; we don’t know much about who these women were at all, or why they really broke up. Amy Pietz is most engaging as Martha, the earthy eldest sister (who actually looks the youngest). The second-act solos are knockouts, especially Elizabeth Ward Land’s “Stormy Weather” and Michelle Duffy’s “Until the Real Thing Comes Along.”
You’d kind of hope a new musical would be exhilarating and extraordinary. Instead, as one opening-night patron put it, “It’s very relaxing.”
©2001 Patté Productions Inc