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Sisterella

After a soulful ballad in which Ella laments her father's loss, evil stepmama Dahlia (played with exquisite relish by Yvette Cason) exults to a more funkified tune in "I Got the Money." That segues quickly if not seamlessly into the next number (also uptempo, and thematically a little too similar), in which the stepsisters join their mother in announcing "Changes" to be made.

With:
Cast: Yvette Cason (Dahlia), Della Miles (Ella), Jimmie Wilson (Prince Jean-Luc), Ralph Cole Jr. (Babaloo), Wanda L. Houston (Magnolia), Rain Pryor (Chrysanthemum), Jody Keith Barrie (Dr. Goniff), Larry Hart (Indursky); Luis Camacho, Sandor De Grazia , Rafael Garcia, Ron Kellum, Amy Keys, Christopher R. Kirby, Bonnie Lynn, Gregory McKinnon, Chuck Rosen, Jim Ryan. Less a musical than a contemporary R&B concert in fancy dress, Larry Hart's "Sisterella" is woefully inadequate as theater, even as it provides a raft of pleasant if undistinguished songs for a cast of talented performers to put across with aplomb. Arriving under the odd auspices of pop star Michael Jackson along with Miramax Films and Robert De Niro's Tribeca Prods., the show is premiering in Pasadena before a stint on Broadway and a proposed film translation. An insert indicated the show was being reworked after the program printing date; more serious revisions are in order if this genial update of the Cinderella story hopes to rival the success of its most obvious antecedent, "The Wiz." Set ostensibly in turn-of-the-century New York, the show opens on a high note , with a rousing gospel number at the funeral of a rich black man who leaves behind his beloved daughter Ella (Della Miles), a $ 900 million fortune, and a second wife and her two daughters from a previous marriage, who soon prove themselves to be a sort of Diana Ross and the Supremes from Hades.

After a soulful ballad in which Ella laments her father’s loss, evil stepmama Dahlia (played with exquisite relish by Yvette Cason) exults to a more funkified tune in “I Got the Money.” That segues quickly if not seamlessly into the next number (also uptempo, and thematically a little too similar), in which the stepsisters join their mother in announcing “Changes” to be made.

The perfunctoriness of the show’s minimal book, by lyricist-composer Hart, becomes apparent quickly. After a brief bit of dialogue in which it’s established that Ella has inherited her father’s fortune, contrary to Dahlia’s expectations, it might be expected that mother and sisters would react.

But no, it’s time for the next number, as Magnolia (Wanda L. Houston) and Chrysanthemum (Rain Pryor) ignore this bit of news and echo the tone of the previous two numbers in “You Ain’t No Sister.” As the simple tale rolls forward, Dahlia gets Ella carted off to the loony bin, where she’s instantly rescued by her fairy godfather Babaloo (Ralph Cole Jr.), who arrives in patent leather platform heels.

In the first act’s deliriously strange finale, “Goin’ to the Party,” vague notions of period are jettisoned completely, as facsimiles of the Village People descend on this turn-of-the-century insane asylum, along with glitter-drenched girls waving banners emblazoned with Ella’s name; E-L-L-A is spelled out in arm movements to the tune of, you guessed it, “YMCA.” Hey, it’s a fairy tale.

Although Hart has clearly mastered the basics of the musical idiom he’s working in and can write pleasant pop music, he’s working with a limited repertoire of styles: the ballad and the disco number. And because the show is virtually all music, this soon becomes a liability.

It’s hard to tell if some songs are intended to be reprises, since they aren’t billed as such. The soulful “I Will Be There for You” is followed soon thereafter by “Who Will Be There for Me”; it returns in act two as “Will You Be There for Me,” to boot. Dahlia’s “I’m Gonna Get Her” in act one becomes “I’m Gonna Getcha” in act two.

If Hart’s music is always palatable, his lyrics tend toward the banal: “I’ll be there to comfort and guide you/When you need someone beside you…” They wouldn’t be amiss on Top 40 radio, but when they’re required to carry the weight of a show with such a slender book, their triteness stands out.

Exacerbating the problem, Hart and director David Simmons have pitched almost all the numbers at the same high-energy level. The ballads are all virtuoso vocal numbers, belted with Whitney Houston-ian flourish by Miles, who is joined on a couple by Hart himself, also a vocal powerhouse, who seems to enter stage right whenever he feels so inclined. (Only in the finale does his role, as the lawyer who helps vindicate Ella from the insanity charge, make dramatic sense.)

The uptempo numbers are all extravaganzas that recall the videos of co-presenter Jackson more than anything else; the musicvideo-derivative staging and choreography by Raymond G. del Barrio is uninspired.

The music itself is prerecorded, lending an ersatz feel to the proceedings. Worst of all, the leads are fitted with obtrusive head mikes — not the semi-obscured variety familiar to Broadway audiences, but the kind used in rock concerts. It seems a perverse gesture, since the performers clearly have vocal powers that don’t need electronic amplification.

That the show remains intermittently engaging is due primarily to the vocal talents of the performers. Miles and Hart, as mentioned, are gifted with powerful voices. Jimmie Wilson, as the Prince, is equally fine, and thankfully refrains from indulging in vocal excesses.

Houston and Pryor make the most of their comic material, thin though it is, and Cason, with the richest and longest role, sweeps all before her with wicked delight.

With a remarkable stable of voices at his disposal, it’s perhaps not surprising that Hart and his collaborators couldn’t resist the impulse to make each number a showstopper. But a series of showstoppers do not a musical make; you’ve got to have a show to stop.

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Sisterella

Production: Sisterella (Pasadena Playhouse; 680 seats; $ 35.50 top) The Pasadena Playhouse, State Theatre of California, Musical Theatre Works (New York) with Miramax Films in association with Tribeca Prods. and Michael Jackson present a musical in two acts with book, music and lyrics by Larry Hart; executive producers, Jackson, Jerry Greenberg in association with Dick Scott Inc.; director, David Simmons; musical staging and

Crew: Choreography, Raymond G. del Barrio; musical director, Matthew Sklar; sets, Gary Wissman; costumes, Pasquale Spezzano; lighting, Kevin Mahan; sound, Robert Ludwig. Opened, reviewed March 17 , 1996; runs through April 21. Running time: 2 hours, 30 min.

With: Cast: Yvette Cason (Dahlia), Della Miles (Ella), Jimmie Wilson (Prince Jean-Luc), Ralph Cole Jr. (Babaloo), Wanda L. Houston (Magnolia), Rain Pryor (Chrysanthemum), Jody Keith Barrie (Dr. Goniff), Larry Hart (Indursky); Luis Camacho, Sandor De Grazia , Rafael Garcia, Ron Kellum, Amy Keys, Christopher R. Kirby, Bonnie Lynn, Gregory McKinnon, Chuck Rosen, Jim Ryan. Less a musical than a contemporary R&B concert in fancy dress, Larry Hart's "Sisterella" is woefully inadequate as theater, even as it provides a raft of pleasant if undistinguished songs for a cast of talented performers to put across with aplomb. Arriving under the odd auspices of pop star Michael Jackson along with Miramax Films and Robert De Niro's Tribeca Prods., the show is premiering in Pasadena before a stint on Broadway and a proposed film translation. An insert indicated the show was being reworked after the program printing date; more serious revisions are in order if this genial update of the Cinderella story hopes to rival the success of its most obvious antecedent, "The Wiz." Set ostensibly in turn-of-the-century New York, the show opens on a high note , with a rousing gospel number at the funeral of a rich black man who leaves behind his beloved daughter Ella (Della Miles), a $ 900 million fortune, and a second wife and her two daughters from a previous marriage, who soon prove themselves to be a sort of Diana Ross and the Supremes from Hades.

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