The most remarkable thing about 1812 Productions' new musical,
Cherry Bomb: The Worst Act in Vaudeville for the Holidays,
is that it's all true. The story of the Cherry Sisters' horrendous 1890s vaudeville act was, when you check it out, word-for-word as terrible as Jennifer Childs' script makes it out to be, no hyperbole necessary.
Reviews really, actually said the five sisters - Ella, Lizzie, Addie, Effie and little Jessie (who was pushing 40) - "surpassed the witches in Macbeth in general hideousness." The girls really spent their performances dodging a tossed salad's worth of hurled vegetables. And yes, they really created a tableau vivant featuring Jessie hanging from a cross.
Childs taps into a curious but compelling facet of performance psychology. What's behind an audience's mob mentality and the naivete of women who willingly, even valiantly, submit to public humiliation? Aside from the obvious pop cultural parallels (
, Britney Spears), it's a topic that's found a comfortable home in musical theater in shows such as
Childs, like those writers before her, wonders what it is specifically about women that encourages unabashed derision and the assumption that the subjects are being exploited without their consent. How much did they really know, and how much did it bother them?
Of course, being a show written and directed by Childs,
is also pretty funny, and with James Sugg's knockout music it has all the makings of a strong production. The show is structured like vaudeville entertainment, with scenes billed as "acts," (Act 3's "The Trial," in which the sisters sue a theater critic - yes, they did, and lost - is billed as "A Burlesque," while Act 4, "A Trip to the Farmstand" - remember the tossed vegetables? - is presented as "A Juggling Extravaganza"). And the songs? Childs' lyrics ingeniously weave fact with fiction, as Oscar Hammerstein (Scott Greer channeling a glowering Orson Welles), who brought the sisters to New York to save his failing Olympia Music Hall, once said and now sings, "I've tried the best, now I'll try the worst."
Each sister adds dimension to the family portrait, but Charlotte Ford's grimacing Jessie is a marvel of gawky horror, and when she sings proudly "I am a Cherry," she evokes at least some of the wonder those early audiences must have felt about the spectacle set before them. A quiet thwarted-love story between Hammerstein's assistant, Edgar (a nuanced Dave Jadico) and Addie adds poignancy to the women's lives (all five declared they'd never been kissed and vowed fidelity only to one another). Karen Getz's choreography has the same playfulness she's brought to 1812 in past productions, and Charlotte Cloe Fox Wind's costumes are occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
The production occasionally suffers from over-exposition, violating the cardinal rule of writing: show, don't tell. It could also use some tightening up, with Hammerstein's role the murkiest - he inexplicably turns from impresario and booster to the women's sworn enemy.
But these are forgivable, fixable issues, especially considering the show's other successes. In this first production, at least, while
might need some more time to ripen, it's already pretty darn sweet.
Presented by 1812 Productions at Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place through Jan. 4. Tickets: $17-$35. Information: 215-592-9560 or
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