The Cherry Sisters, once known as the worst act in vaudeville, are making a comeback in 1812 Productions' new musical
The show, with book and lyrics by Jennifer Childs and an original score by James Sugg, is in previews at Plays & Players Theatre and opens Wednesday. Bring your rotten tomatoes - a Vegetable Event is promised. A 1903 review of the infamous act noted the "vegetarian applause" it elicited, and performances sometimes ended in rowdyism - even riots - all of which made the sisters, according to an 1895 newspaper article, "exceedingly wrathy."
One of those strange, inexplicable show-biz phenoms, the five Cherry Sisters from Marion, Iowa, had toured for several years when they were brought to New York by impresario Oscar Hammerstein (grandfather of
Oscar Hammerstein) to play at his Olympia Theater, a vaudeville house between 45th and 46th on Broadway.
The Olympia was well on its way down the drain - even the class acts weren't selling tickets - but it turned out to be the Cherry Sisters who saved the theater. "I've tried the best," Hammerstein reportedly said, "now I'll try the worst."
The curious may have flocked to see them, but their reviews had always been scathing: Not only couldn't they sing or dance or act, wrote one critic of the era, but they "surpass the witches in
in general hideousness."
(Footnote: This generation's theatrical Hammerstein, Simon, also runs a Manhattan vaudeville theater, called the Box. And the shows he presents are filled with awful acts, too - but pornographic ones, so degenerate, New York Magazine reports, that even musician Moby, an investor in the club, declared it was too much for him.)
The Cherry Sisters, none of whom ever married, had hopes of cleaning up show business, and sprinkled their act with pious essay readings and even a tableau vivant of the Crucifixion. As Sugg pointed out, there are many ways to be bad, and one is to make bad choices. The sisters, it seems, chose to believe they were good.
The obvious questions are: How do you make a good show out of a bad one? How do you avoid turning contemporary Philadelphia audiences into a mocking mob? How do talented cast members entertain us and still convince us they have no talent?
For answers, I went to the source.
Before run-through rehearsals there are stumble- throughs, and it was one of the latter I was invited to watch. The actors we see all glammed up on stage are barely recognizable here, in glasses and sweatshirts; they sit on folding chairs, facing music stands.
James Sugg beams as the cast deals with his difficult melodies; he has wrenched his hair into two enormous tufts. Choreographer Karen Getz, listening to her iPod through earbuds, works out dance steps silently. People lay tape on the floor to represent a staircase.
The song they are rehearsing is so tricky, so demanding in its vocal range, that they sing the same bit over and over, with patient Eric Ebbenga, the show's music director, at the keyboard. Sugg, a four-time Barrymore Award winner, is familiar to Philadelphia avant-garde audiences (10 years with Pig Iron Theatre Company) as an actor, sound designer and composer. He recently returned from his New York success with Pig Iron's
Jen Childs, artistic director and cofounder of 1812 Productions, has long been fascinated by vaudeville, and has devoted one show each season to an homage or a resurrection, as well as contemporary acts. She first heard about the Cherry Sisters 10 years ago and has been thinking about them ever since, even traveling to Iowa to do research.
Childs sees an echo of the sisters' careers in the popularity of TV's
; she says there's something that draws audiences to watching performers "crash and burn." It's what Scott Greer, who plays Hammerstein (and is married to Childs), calls "the cringe factor," citing Ricky Gervais in the British version of
- he's humiliating himself so we don't have to.
is not the sisters' act, it's what happens to them offstage - but it's presented in a vaudeville act, onstage, for us. Ella, Lizzie, Jessie, Addie and Effie Cherry are played by Mary Martello, Maureen Torsney-Weir, Charlotte Ford, Megan Bellwoar and Mary McCool, who clearly are enjoying the experience. Says Torsney-Weir, "This is the hardest I've ever worked in my life, and the most fun."
Ford has found it "empowering" to have five funny women onstage, and Childs calls
a rare opportunity: Seldom is there more than one funny woman and her sidekick in a comic show.
Meeting the challenge of being good at being bad has been arduous. Cast member Dave Jadico spent the last six months teaching the five to juggle (there's a major group-juggling moment), and Getz is choreographing them "an inch beyond capacity."
Yet it's been rewarding, they tell me. Martello says she savored getting "to know the sisters and bring the audience into the lives of these naive girls," while Ford observes, "It's so freeing to be bad - we all fail so often. There is truth in comedy."
In the end, says Childs, "The show's central question is: Who gets to say what's good? The producers? The artists? The audience?"
Nah, I say: It's the critics.