With “The Boswell Sisters,” creators Stuart Ross and Mark Hampton perform the distressing feat of reverse alchemy, taking gold and transforming it into lead. Having identified the intriguing, real-life story of this mostly forgotten trio of sister singers, who achieved significant fame during the Depression before disbanding, Ross and Hampton have arrived at a conception for a musical revue so theatrically stale that even the songs, captured by a capable cast of actor-singers, are infected by the shapeless lethargy of the dramatic structure. This is a show, which its creators are about to put through another development phase, whose program notes are far more informative, entertaining and even moving than what’s actually put onstage.
For a little less than a decade, Martha, Connee and Helvetia (Vet) Boswell were radio stars, investing the contemporary tunes of their time — “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Dinah,” “Shine on Harvest Moon,” etc. — with a syncopated, energetic three-part harmony that helped define the sound of the era. Then they stopped. Martha and Vet went on to raise families, while Connee pursued a successful solo career, despite a disability that barely made it possible for her to walk unsupported.
The raw material here is astoundingly ripe for dramatic treatment, and the music itself transports us happily into a nostalgic haze. But Ross (“Forever Plaid”) and Hampton (“Full Gallop”) come up with a poor excuse for a framework. They set their piece post-WWII, a decade after the sisters stopped singing together. Connee has asked them to reunite for a March of Dimes event, and the three gather at the family farm where Martha still lives to rehearse their old numbers.
Idea is for the audience to learn their story as they reminisce on their glory days and squabble as only siblings can, interrupting their chatter to sing one glorious song after another.
Alas, it’s all strained to the breaking point, filled with nothing but cliches, while the interesting parts of the story have been relegated deep into an undefined and, ultimately, unexplored past. The characters that are sketched out are flat, and the relationships between the sisters are just empty shells waiting for some actual storytelling to emerge. The plotline, created out of whole cloth, doesn’t show up until the end and relies on sentimental hokum.
The style is a mix of unbelievable realism and unstimulating theatricality, all of which director Ross keeps at the same monotone throughout. The highlight of the show comes when footage is shown of a cartoon in which the Boswell Sisters appeared and sung.
The production overdoses on lighting cues, although David F. Segal does manage occasionally to create that warm glow of ’30s cinematography, which complements Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes. James Youmans’ attractive set provides a staircase on which the band sits.
The musicians, all men, are introduced at one point, and we’re supposed to be amused that they’re all named Joe. Other than that, they’re to be paid no attention, and the sisters act the rest of the time as if these men don’t exist — they’re sort of there and sort of not.
The performers do their best with the material, giving the characters at least a little personality during the interminable interstices between songs. Amy Pietz (“Caroline in the City”), as Martha, injects some solid comic timing into the unfunny efforts at humor and the annoying audience participation following intermission. On the night reviewed, understudy Eydie Alyson covered up the rough edges of her performances with a graceful charm and held her own with the songs.
The singing is really quite good, with arrangements by Joseph Baker and a sound design by Paul Peterson that really does sometimes make it feel as if we’re hearing this on an old radio. As Connee, Elizabeth Ward Land doesn’t just sing with verve, but also really gets the right attitude, from the demeanor of a comfortable star right down to the little poses at the end of the songs.