It's a long distance from The Three Sisters to Dreamgirls. Somewhere along the way falls Three Sistahs, which is receiving a production at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. A musical adaptation of Anton Chekhov's ideas (if not his story), it explores the resilience of not only African Americans but all Americans in the Vietnam Era and beyond as they deal with love, loss, and coping with grief.
Is this really a musical? Yes, but whether or not it should be is more complicated. There is a reason, after all, you see so few musicalizations of Chekhov's plays: Their strength is in their subtlety, their details, their subtext. Translating them to any other medium - however free that translation may be, and this show plays fast and loose with the source material - requires a way to meet these challenges on the new medium's terms. In that way, Three Sistahs doesn't completely succeed.
Composer William F. Hubbard and lyricist and librettist Thomas W. Jones II (who also directs) have no problem tapping into the period's musical influences, and they unleash a veritable torrent of songs that connect the show's three characters to the story's late 1960s setting. But while the writers go to extravagant lengths to incorporate blues, gospel, pop, R&B, and even traditional musical theatre recitative into the show's texture, the songs frequently feel lacking in true integration. Comic songs about love and sex are given as much weight as a song about cities burning in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination; when the characters sing of their ideal lives or long to truly understand each other, the words come far more quickly than the feelings that should be behind them.
This proves something of a handicap, given the story's setup: The three sisters of the title - Olive (Cheryl Alexander), Marsha (Daria Hardeman), and Irene (Shelly Thomas) - are gathering together at their family home after the death of their brother Andre, the only other remaining member of their family. Irene, a revolutionary type, resents what she considers Andre's senseless death in Vietnam; Marsha is struggling with a loveless marriage; Olive, by dint of her sticking with the family when the other two left, feels she's entitled to more control than the others; and the three, in attempting to come together, only seem to be moving farther apart.
None of this easily gives way to music, however good that music may be. And while the Jones/Hubbard score is varied, lively, and highly listenable, it only truly succeeds as theatre music four times: when the characters read letters from various members of their families. Here, the connections between the three women, their brother, and their father - a career military man who violently insisted Andre serve in Vietnam - are every bit as dramatically vibrant as they need to be. These songs, unlike most of the others, really have the ring of emotional truth.
While Jones has done a fine job helping the three actresses - all of whom are equally strong - explore the facets of their relationships, his staging is less sure. It's often meandering and unfocused, particularly in the songs, which often find the characters wandering around the simple living room set (designed by Tom Gleason) as they sing. This lack of specificity of action or movement tends to make absorbing the material even tougher; the cast isn't miked - and most of the time they don't need to be - but their incessant wanderings sometimes cause lines or lyrics to be lost.
The writing is astute enough, however, that the show's central meaning never is. But nor is it ever emphasized quite as powerfully as it might be. For ideas and feelings as big as those here, drawing a world on the brink of great social and political change, everything seems too small to be ideally effective. Not all musicals have to be big, but they have to be big enough. Three Sistahs - despite many virtues in its writing, composition, and performance - simply isn't.
New York Musical Theatre Festival