In 1934 Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II ventured overseas to create "Three Sisters." The original production featured U.K. faves Adele Dixon, Stanley Holloway, Esmond Knight and beloved U.S. comedienne Charlotte Greenwood. It also evidently sported an onstage Thames (complete with boats and geese), among other spectacle elements.
In 1934 Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II ventured overseas to create “Three Sisters.” The original production featured U.K. faves Adele Dixon, Stanley Holloway, Esmond Knight and beloved U.S. comedienne Charlotte Greenwood. It also evidently sported an onstage Thames (complete with boats and geese), among other spectacle elements.
Though the musical won praise for its beautiful score, Brit crix took umbrage at Yanks crafting such an English show. Audiences followed suit, and a U.S. transfer failed to follow that disappointing 72-performance run at Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The score subsequently disappeared (some individual songs preserved via recordings and published sheet music); a final production script surfaced just this year in the London Censors Office archives.
S.F.’s 42nd St. Moon Prods. has won a devoted following in the last few years for its “Lost Musical Series” of semi-staged revivals, and their current salvage effort may be this group’s most notable coup to date. Drawn from incomplete surviving materials, “Three Sisters” is still just a partial reconstruction. But what has survived is very charming.
This drama-with-songs seems more in line with the fabled team’s earlier “Show Boat”– while hardly as epic, innovative or consequential — than their more frivolous ’30s vehicles. Hammerstein’s book is unusually complex and melancholy for the period. It traces the romantic travails suffered over a few years in the lives of itinerant photographer Will Barbour’s three daughters. Tiny, the eldest , anticipates a placid married life with steady, dullish fiancee Eustace, but she’s waylaid by antic street busker George. His performing partner Gypsy is a serial Romeo distracted from the chase by adoring youngest sis Mary. Only middle sib Dorrie wants out of this scrape-along, carnival-to-circus lifestyle. Her social ambitions do attract earnest attention from upper-crust dreamboat Sir John. Spousal wanderlust, class snobbery and the advent of WWI provide moments of heartbreak for each Barbour girl before happy endings arrive.
The rediscovered text ran an impossible 200 pages, necessitating cuts here (including an epilogue). In 42nd St.’s version, the narrative runs at a pleasant , leisurely pace until Act 2, when various last-minute conflicts and resolutions provide little climactic satisfaction. Still, there’s a real sincerity and sweetness to the “Three Sisters” storyline, one that largely bypasses mawkish sentiment.
But the prize here is Kern’s extant music. This material was ideal for his way with a wistful ballad, and several are gorgeous: Gypsy’s “Now That I Have Springtime,” Tiny’s lullaby “Somebody Wants to Go to Sleep” and Eustace’s disarmingly plain “Hand in Hand.” (Another memorable ditty, “When I’ve Got the Moon,” is the sole interpolation here, taken from an unproduced Kern-Hammerstein film of the same period.) Other numbers include several bows to English music hall styles and the anthemic “You Are Doing Very Well.” Only “Lonely Feet” and “I Won’t Dance” went on to lasting fame via reuse in later projects. Five tunes are presumed permanently lost; musical director Sam Schieber has written a serviceable melody for one (the soldiers-in-drag novelty “The Gaiety Chorus Girls”), using Hammerstein’s original lyrics. Elsewhere, his from-scratch choral arrangements are quite beautiful — though soprano Caroline Altman’s operatic background trilling might have been deployed less often.
As usual with 42nd St. efforts, Greg MacKellan’s bare-bones interp scarcely dampens the work’s appeal. The cast, drawn from a pool of otherwise underemployed Bay Area cabaret/musical-theater talents, is vocally and dramatically assured. Barbara Bernardo contributes suitably modest choreography.
There would be numerous hurdles to jump should any enterprising group attempt a fully staged “Three Sisters.” But after 60 years’ wait, the effort might be worth it.
Musical numbers: "Roll on Rolling Road," "Now That I Have Springtime," "My Beautiful Circus Girl, " "Hand in Hand," "Somebody Wants to Go to Sleep," "You Are Doing Very Well," "Lonely Feet," "What Good Are Words?," "Funny Old House," "Wedding Scene," "Keep Smiling," "I Won't Dance," "The Gaiety Chorus Girls."