Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review of 1812's production of Cherry Bomb

First published in Edge Philadelphia, 12-20-2008:

Possibly the least appreciated fact about human nature is how little it changes. Today, crazed and talentless contestants appear on American Idol to publicly humiliate themselves and ratings soar. 100 years ago, people loved the Cherry Sisters, a quintet appropriately, if not affectionately, known as "the Worst Act in Vaudeville."

Of course, the real question is why any of them, from William Hung to the Cherry Sisters, subject themselves to nightly humiliation. In 1812’s vaudeville entertainment Cherry Bomb: The Worst Act in Vaudeville for the Holidays, composer James Sugg and lyricist/book-writer Jen Childs’ seek an answer.

Childs cleverly uses a play-within-a-play construction to get at the heart of their story, making each of the five women-Ella (Mary Martello), Lizzie (Maureen Torsney-Weir), Addie (Megan Bellwoar), Effie (Mary McCool), and Jessie (Charlotte Ford)-characters in the musical, as well as a staged presentation of their life by Oscar Hammerstein I (Scott Greer). Each act employs a different vaudevillian style (from a burlesque and a romantic serenade to a juggling extravaganza), while the girls struggle to maintain the truth of their story against Hammerstein’s more insulting retelling.

Initially, the five sisters only needed to raise money to find a runaway brother, and decided to rent a local opera house to stage a show. A scandalous review, in which a critic compared them unfavorably to the three witches from Macbeth, caused them to sue the Des Moines Leader and brought the Cherry Sisters to the attention of Hammerstein, who needed an act to save his floundering Olympia Theatre.

After failing to win audiences with better acts, Hammerstein declares that he’s "now going to try the worst," and brings the women to New York. The city first indulges in its baser instincts - throwing enough tomatoes to raise the revenues of vegetable sellers outside the theatre - before embracing the women and featuring them in the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But while this show has a heart (and Childs shows a real sympathy and affection for the sisters), 100 years ago, human nature was clearly on display. Even after seven seasons of American Idol, it’s hard to imagine that any act could inspire enough hatred that would make one spectator viciously unload the contents of a fire extinguisher onto one of the sister’s faces (actually happened, though not portrayed in this show). So, Childs’ ends the show by convincing us, that yes, they were this terrible, by staging the girls’ actual act as a finale of horrible singing, terrible acting, and a ludicrous tableau vivant of Jessie hanging from a cross to reenact Christ’s crucifixion.

But while the Cherry’s may have possessed no talent at all, 1812 rounded up some of the best that Philadelphia could offer for this world premiere. Sugg’s music, set mostly to piano, violin, and clarinet, provides dexterity to match the varying vaudeville styles, from engaging melodies and a tender ballad ("Let Love In") to a magnificent seven-part act one curtain number ("Good, What is Good"). Though with a few duller moments (the marriage proposal song), Childs’ book zings through the Cherry’s story with zest and verve, and her "trial scene" includes lawyerly riddles and jokes that remind of Alice in Wonderland.

The immensely talented Dave Jadico (as the stagehand Edgar Sayres) deepens the humor with his pantomimes, sings charmingly, and even balances a washtub on his face, while Greer’s boisterous personality and booming voice finds a perfect outlet in his impresario role as Hammerstein. All five of the women show a marvelous mastery of their gifts, managing to mangle their talents when directly portraying the Cherry Sisters, later singing wonderfully (Martello), or engaging with their lovelorn expressions (Bellwoar).

"Cherry Bomb" entertains, but rather than an explosion of over-the-top humor, it’s on a par with the style of self-indulgent, low-key humor that this company has put out over the years. Undoubtedly, 1812 has provided some of the most successful original comedy in Philadelphia, achieving tremendous success with their blisteringly funny "This is the Week that Is" specials, but it’s a winking humor, getting laughs while implying "look what you’re letting us get away with in Philadelphia."

Moreover, I didn’t leave the theatre feeling that the show gave me any greater understanding of why anyone would subject themselves to such public humiliation, and this might be the only goal that Childs’ didn’t attain. However, to their great credit, Childs’ story and Sugg’s music showed what the entertainment world lost when vaudeville gave way to musical comedy.

And their show managed this without schmaltz, without derision, and with warmth, including the most tender moment I’ve seen on stage in a very long time. Here, Ford’s endearing rendition of "I am a Cherry" proves that whatever else defines human nature, the definition must include the kind of heartfelt devotion that her artistry shows is possible.

1812 Productions presents the world premiere of Cherry Bomb, an original vaudeville by composer James Sugg, lyrics by Jen Childs. At Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street Philadelphia. Tickets and more information available at

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