The Andrews Sisters, who rose to mega-stardom during the World War II Big Band era, were the Dixie Chicks of their time. That is, if you first replace the Chicks' antiwar sentiment with patriotism and then add an unbridled popularity no girl group since the Andrews Sisters has ever quite matched. OK, so they weren't the Dixie Chicks of their time. They were the Andrews Sisters. Enough said.
If you can adapt ABBA into Mamma Mia! and Billy Joel into Movin' Out, then there's absolutely no reason you shouldn't feel free to create a musical bio-play about the songs and tribulations of LaVerne, Maxene, and Patty Andrews. That's just what Beth Gilleland and Bob Beverage did. The result is the über-charming Sisters of Swing, which opened last week at Florida Stage.
During their long career, the Andrews Sisters recorded more than 700 songs and sold more than 90 million records. They were the first girl group to go platinum, and 46 of their tunes reached the Billboard charts' top ten, including their first big hit, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön," as well as other toe-tappers like "Accentuate the Positive," "Rum and Coca-Cola," and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." The sisters also appeared in a slew of movies, most notably the 1941 Abbott and Costello blockbusters Buck Privates and In the Navy. There may have been other sister acts back in the day, but it's difficult now to think of any more closely linked with patriotic home-front support of troops than the A-Sisters. To many, LaVerne, Maxene, and Patty were the home front -- airwave manifestations of the girlfriends and sisters our soldiers were fighting for and eager to come home to.
Getting behind home-front-girl iconography -- and having loads of fun with the Andrews Sisters' catchy songs -- is the well-realized intention of Sisters of Swing, written by Gilleland and Beverage, with musical arrangements by Raymond Berg. In this regional premiere, the play is jazzily handled by director Lynnette Barkley and musical director Christopher McGovern, who navigate a funny and moving musical trail through the women's lives, from childhood Minnesota talent contests through hardscrabble years on the vaudeville circuit and the eventual coming-of-age transformation into wartime songbird Florence Nightingales. If you think this sounds like just another musical revue geared toward the reminiscing blue-haired set, you'll be warm-heartedly mistaken. After all, using a post-Brian Setzer Gap ad syllogism... Big Band is cool. The Andrews Sisters are Big Band. Therefore, the Andrews Sisters are cool.
The play's Andrews Sisters -- Maribeth Graham, Irene Adjan, and Jennifer Swiderski -- are a great trio in their own right, magical and hard-working. But among the production's many surprises -- besides an excellent supporting six-piece band, a retro orchestra set, and clever musical arrangements that also include endearing audience participation -- is the ambitious legwork of the play's two male co-star Everymen, Terrell Hardcastle and Tom Kenaston. They become all of the boys who occupy the girls' lives -- soldiers, husbands, record producers, and radio announcers -- and also create scene-stealing impressions of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.
When it comes to reassembling vulnerable human bones from the closets of icons, biographical playwrights unfortunately share a certain odd experience usually reserved for play reviewers. I'm talking about the vulture-like need to bleed their subjects' negative sides, no matter how small. For their part, Gilleland and Beverage explore the minor blemishes beneath the sweet sisters' makeup. As it turns out, LaVerne was a sad, jealous, maternal figure. Crazed Patty once staked out Doris Day's house, armed with a baseball bat, to catch her philandering husband. And why did sensitive Maxene turn into a pill popper? The authors kindly keep the lashing to a minimum, airing just enough dirty laundry between song sets to thoughtfully place the Andrews Sisters on the same human playing field as the rest of us. We all have our problems, after all, even if we're making ten grand a week in the early 1940s. Some of us just harmonize better amid our troubles.
As for play reviewers' vilified tendencies to, um, accentuate the negative? With regard to this Florida Stage production, sorry, but I've got nothing. Don't get me wrong. I tried really hard at first (hmm, what's up with the acoustics in this place?) to find dents. But five minutes into the second half, I simply stopped trying. You see, whatever energy created the Andrews Sisters phenomenon is rabidly contagious. The talented cast and crew of Sisters of Swing have caught that energy and are having as much fun giving good show as the real Andrews Sisters must certainly have exhibited. How's that for verisimilitude?
Real-life Patty Andrews, who still lives in California, is now 87 years old. LaVerne died of cancer in 1967, and Maxene joined the Big Band gig in the sky in 1995. Near the end of Sisters of Swing, the play's Patty reflects on how everyone she knew from the heyday is now gone: "I'm the youngest, but I'm older than any of them ever were." This beautiful and melancholy comment brings the Andrews Sisters' story full circle, back to their innocent childhood beginnings. And in a way, it also ties down their legacy. The historical lens will always focus on Patty as the youngest of an exuberant trio frozen in time, blemished or not, as "Greatest Generation" sweethearts.
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