Managing with sly wit and tonal dexterity to make a very good show out of a very bad one, "Cherry Bomb" takes up the improbable history of the Cherry Sisters of Iowa, five backwoods women who decided to make money performing on the vaudeville stage.

Managing with sly wit and tonal dexterity to make a very good show out of a very bad one, “Cherry Bomb” takes up the improbable history of the Cherry Sisters of Iowa, five backwoods women who decided to make money performing on the vaudeville stage. Neither rotten tomatoes nor scathing reviews discouraged them; when Oscar Hammerstein (the Oscar Hammerstein’s grandfather) hired them to restore the fading fortunes of his Broadway house, the Olympia, he supposedly said, “I’ve tried the best, and now I’ll try the worst.” It worked: full houses of mocking audiences discovering the crash-and-burn pleasures of “American Idol” before the fact. But the show’s enormous triumph is that it’s wildly funny, surprisingly moving and never mean-spirited.

“Cherry Bomb” is a show within a show within a show. Using Plays & Players Theater, a slightly decrepit, old-fashioned house with a proscenium and a red velvet curtain, 1812 Prods. gives us a turn-of-the-century variety show with a wink and a nod. Signs on easels announce “A Brief Melodrama” or “A Dramatic Reading With Dance Accompaniment and Operatic Comment.”

The frame within that frame is Hammerstein’s staging of the story of the Cherry Sisters’ career through acts — singing, dancing, juggling, skits, fortune tellers — although the five women keep balking and correcting him. And, finally, for the show within that show, a shabby second proscenium, with a bedraggled red velvet curtain appears upstage and the Cherry Sisters perform their act as they did it in 1903.

Having created a sophisticated burlesque that is a tribute to a bygone era of show business, director and writer Jennifer Childs finds a pace lively enough to suit contemporary audiences without betraying her material. Her book and lyrics both narrate and comment, with such lines as “I’m a Cherry with a cherry/I will be no man’s wife,” making “bon voyage-y” rhyme with “sad homage-y” and “enthrallin’” with “gallin’.”

James Sugg’s nifty music matches that playful nostalgia: sometimes complex and challenging to sing, sometimes straightforward and melodic, he ranges all over the music timeline, alluding like mad. There is one lovely ballad, “Let Love In,” and two genuine production numbers, “The Safe Side of the Lights,” a warning about the allure of the stage, and the show’s catchiest tune, “Cherry Bomb,” about being so bad you’re good.

Playing the Cherry Sisters requires courage: not only do the five actors have to be funny, they have to do it at their own expense — looking awful in dreadful wigs, ridiculous gingham costumes, often forced to sing off key or out of vocal range — all with straight faces and moral earnestness. (The Cherrys’ actual act included an essay on the behavior of “modern young men” read aloud, and a tableau vivant of the Crucifixion.)

Mary Martello (the best voice, the most ironical face), Mary McCool, Megan Bellwoar, Maureen Torsney-Weir and Charlotte Ford (whose irresistible deer-in-the-headlights face nearly steals the show) are all terrifically good at being bad, and Scott Greer, an accomplished song-and-dance man, plays Hammerstein with cigar-smoking gusto, aided and abetted by Dave Jadico, the juggling stagehand.

“Cherry Bomb” is itself a rarity: a small, human, no-tech show, full of fun and sympathy for anybody who has ever felt the way the Cherry Sisters feel about show business, “This world is thrilling, isn’t it?”

Cherry Bomb: The Worst Act in Vaudeville

Plays & Players Theater, Philadelphia; 324 seats; $35 top

Production

An 1812 Prods. presentation of a musical in two acts, with book and lyrics by Jennifer Childs, music by James Sugg. Directed by Childs. Music direction, Eric Ebbenga. Choreography, Karen Getz. S

Creative

et, Adam Riggar; costumes, Charlotte Cloe Fox Wind cq; lighting, James Leitner; sound, Nick Kourtides; vocal arrangements, orchestrations, Ebbenga; production stage manager, Thomas E. Shotkin. Opened, reviewed Dec. 17, 2008. Runs through Jan. 4. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Oscar Hammerstein - Scott Greer Ella Cherry - Mary Martello Lizzie Cherry - Maureen Torsney-Weir Addie Cherry - Megan Bellwoar Effie Cherry - Mary McCool Jessie Cherry - Charlotte Ford Edgar Sayres - Dave Jadico

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