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Family plot 

Three Sistahs puts sibling rivalry into song

"Last year's funeral was happier," remarks one of the title characters in Three Sistahs at the top of Horizon Theatre's musical. For the Bradshaw sisters, funerals have become like some kind of morbid annual tradition, as they've buried their mother, father, and most recently, their younger brother, Andre, over the past three years.

As the siblings spend a weekend grieving for Andre and preparing their father's house for sale, they reflect on their dearly departed and air some long-standing grievances. Loosely inspired by Chekhov's Three Sisters, the premise proves ideal for a stage drama about family and memory, but makes a more problematic musical. Despite the efforts of impeccable musical talents on stage and off, Three Sistahs only rarely finds its groove.

Intoning the low, mournful, gospel-style tones of "In My Father's House," the three sisters enter in black mourning dresses. Proud but lonely college professor Olive (Bernardine Mitchell); boozing, bored, bourgeois Marsha (Crystal Fox); and idealistic, college-age Irene (Dorothy Bell) turn out to be a study in contrasts despite their shared tragedy and parentage. The story takes place in 1969, and with Andre a casualty of the Vietnam War and Irene on the front lines of the black-power movement, social issues sit comfortably with the domestic disagreements.

Director Thomas W. Jones wrote the lyrics and book (based on a story by Janet Pryce), with William Hubbard providing compositions, and they provide persuasive samples of period-appropriate jazz, rock, gospel and R&B stylists. The more smoothly the songs integrate into the conversations, the higher the play soars, especially in a casual, slumber-party-style sequence in Act One when the women reminisce about their first kisses and other experiences with the opposite sex. The tunes cleverly emulate the girl-group combos of the 1950s and '60s, with the actresses playfully emulating the hand gestures of the Supremes and the like.

For a play shot through with pain and sadness, the humor provides the most memorable moments, like the saucy inflection Mitchell puts on the line, "I remember the first time I lost my virginity." Fox carries the comedy even further, showing such sharp timing and funny voices, like Marsha's impression of her father, that it seems like a jazz-improvisational approach to humor. Bell gets fewer pieces of comedy and generally seems less grounded and vivid than her co-stars, but that might simply reflect her character's sheltered naiveté.

All three performers have powerful, ringing voices but seem constrained in Three Sistahs. Part of the trouble comes from Jones' staging, which frequently leaves the actresses obstructed by the set's furniture when they need to break into song.

Perhaps the performers simply hadn't found their sea legs on opening night, but Three Sistahs' songs seldom found that transcendent quality you search for and often find in musicals.

It's also hard to get past the fact that Three Sistahs' sharpest conflict takes place between two characters who are already dead. The sisters' recollections paint intriguing portraits of reluctant soldier Andre and their stern father, a proud West Point graduate and World War II veteran. Elements of both Oedipus and the Great Santini emerge, particularly in the father's abusive treatment of his son, but the emotions feel secondhand at best. Having the sisters sing songs based on both men's letters doesn't really compensate, although Fox movingly sings a sweet song along the lines of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" that could have been a Nat King Cole standard.

The theme about the female perspective on war -- that daughters, sisters and wives pay the price by mourning fallen soldiers -- stays at the margins of Three Sistahs without coming to the forefront. The sisters' conflicts between each other turn out to be less compelling, although Olive and Irene passionately argue the merits of the competing Civil Rights philosophies of the era. Overall, Jones and Hubbard's music, however well-polished, doesn't gracefully meld with the personal stories of the Bradshaw sisters. People talk about how musicals "open up" their material, but perhaps Three Sistahs' deserved to be more "closed," in the way Chekhov's melancholy dramedies were so delicately universal.

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