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Theater Review

Tuneful Trio Comes Back to Life

Despite some dramatic missteps, 'The Boswell Sisters' winningly re-creates the group's landmark radio music.

July 30, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — What's that? You say you woke up this morning to the sound of your own head vibrating in three-part harmony?

Well, as your doctor, I'd suggest taking the waters at Baden-Baden, but assuming the HMO won't sign off on that , let's stick closer to home. Clearly the vibrations were caused by the show you saw at the Globe Theatres over the weekend.

Structurally wobbly but musically sublime, it goes by the name "The Boswell Sisters." It was created by Stuart Ross, best known for the four-part harmonic convergence known as "Forever Plaid," and by Mark Hampton ("Full Gallop").

For years, Ross has monkeyed with versions of a Boswell tribute, attempting to capture what many of us find so addictive in the sisters' close harmony and weeping-willow soulfulness, their pungent, swinging way with a melody.

The Andrews Sisters, who hit big just as the Boswells broke up, may be better known today. But they couldn't hold three candles to Connee, Vet (short for Helvetia) and Martha Boswell. In the 1920s and '30s, they were sold as the "syncopatin' songbirds from New Orleans," and their musically scrupulous yet easygoing ways--a fine match for radio--found a wide audience.

Connee, who used a wheelchair and other conveyances owing to a childhood accident (often misattributed to polio), served as lead singer. Hers is one of the great, gorgeous voices of 20th century popular song, as supple as mid-'50s Sinatra, or any-era Ella Fitzgerald. When a teenaged Fitzgerald won a talent contest in 1934, she won it imitating Connee Boswell, who, as she said, "did things that no one else was doing at the time." The lead Boswell scatted, bent and reconfigured melody lines like a jazz soloist, and when she sang--in that yearning, sensual alto--about the South, or a man, it was the sound of something that mattered.

The Boswells once got a hate letter: "Get those savage chanters off the air!" one displeased radio listener wrote. More than a hint of racism was inherent in such a letter. Connee Boswell cited the African American blues singer Mamie Smith as a key inspiration. In the Boswells' vocals, you hear an aural gumbo made up of black and white and Creole influences, spirituals and ha-cha, decorum and abandon.

All of this is touched upon, at least, in the freely fictionalized "Boswell Sisters."

The premise: Sometime after World War II, at the upstate New York farm run by Martha Boswell (Amy Pietz, from "Caroline in the City"), the sisters reunite to rehearse for a March of Dimes benefit performance. Vet (Michelle Duffy) relays the story of the reunion to us, as a flashback. Often she replays bits of an argument or a conversation for our amusement.

Connee (Elizabeth Ward Land), the self-described "bossy perfectionist," has her share of asides to the audience, too, as does Martha. Eventually two conflicts emerge: Will Martha, who feels abandoned by her sisters, sell the farm? And will the reunion hold long enough to get the Boswells through the benefit performance?

Ross and Hampton acknowledge the familial tensions that led to the sisters' scattering in the first place, but they're uncertainly addressed. The show's makers want a good-time diversion, complete with an audience sing-along on "Shine On, Harvest Moon." Yet, the way it's structured, late in Act 2 "The Boswell Sisters" turns into a profile in Connee's courage. The melodramatically ruthless climax has her standing at the microphone for "Stormy Weather."

None of the tonal clashes or conceptual pile-ups matters much, if you're hot for the music. It's a lovely staging, and the Boswells have been superbly cast. Land's Connee sounds remarkably like the real thing, especially on the long "o" vowel sounds. Duffy's Vet is pure, effortless period charm, to whom audience rapport comes as naturally as breathing. Pietz's Martha is more contemporary-seeming, but she has a wonderfully quick way with the exposition.

They're backed by a Dixie-inflected onstage quintet led by musical supervisor Brad Ellis at the piano. (The sharp orchestrations and arrangements are by Peter Matz and Joseph Baker, respectively.) Ann Hould-Ward's costumes for the Boswells couldn't be better or more beautifully delineated.

When Duffy, Land and Pietz are flying through "It's the Girl," or donning "Top Hat," or having their own sweet way with "When I Take My Sugar to Tea," the show's irresistible. But for the sake of future incarnations, I hope "The Boswell Sisters" takes a tip from that musical-comedy maven, Henry David Thoreau: simplify, simplify. There's something about the flashback structure that frustrates. If Ross and Hampton can better intertwine the story it wants to tell with all that swell music, who knows? They might end up with a "Forever Boswell."

"The Boswell Sisters," the Globe Theatres, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Sept. 1. $20 to $50. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Michelle Duffy: Vet

Elizabeth Ward Land: Connee

Amy Pietz: Martha

Written by Stuart Ross and Mark Hampton. Directed by Stuart Ross. Musical supervision by Brad Ellis. Scenic design by James Youmans. Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward. Lighting by David F. Segal. Sound by Paul Peterson. Orchestrations by Peter Matz. Arrangements by Joseph Baker. Stage manager D. Adams.

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