Fort Worth — The regional premiere of Dorothy Marcic’s Sistas the Musical is onstage at the Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth, directed by Jubilee’s artistic director D. Wambui Richardson — his first show to direct here since taking the job one year ago — and with musical direction by Clark Joseph. Germono Toussaint is responsible for the arrangements of the 35 musical selections pulled together by Marcic for this show. Marcic’s piece debuted off-Broadway in 2011 at St. Luke’s Theater, and by 2013 the musical had been translated into a made-for-television movie Sistas: The Musical.
Though the term “musical” is used, this is more like a musical revue. A musical has a full-bodied story which is told in part through music. Marcic has pulled together popular songs spanning a period from the 1930s into the early 21st century that she believes tell the stories of three black sisters, their white sister-in-law, and the oldest sister’s child.
Their grandmother has died. The women meet in grandmother’s attic to decide which song they will perform at the memorial service. While sifting through things in her attic they find memories and make discoveries, all through music. George Miller’s set design allows for a lot of movement and choices for the characters.
Teaching Tamika about the Civil Rights movement becomes as important as finding a song to sing at the memorial so the sisters become very engaged in reminiscing. The girl learns about SNCC, lynchings, and the feminist movement. At the same time, Heather receives a lesson about black-women-and-their-hair.
Dr. Simone (Octavia Y. Thomas) is the intellectually accomplished sister. Her daughter, Tamika (Sydney Hewitt), is in a toxic relationship with a man who disrespects her. The middle sister, Gloria (L’Paige Bedford), has become deeply religious in an effort to cope. Roberta (Kim Billins) is rough around the edges but we learn this is the result of having been sexually abused. Heather (Kaylee Killingsworth) is their sister-in-law, having married their brother, Calvin.
The music in this collection is wonderful, including songs such as “Oh Happy Day” written by Philip Doddridge and recorded by the Edwin Hawkin Singers, “Hot Stuff” by Pete Bellotte and Harold Faltermeyer and sung by Donna Summer, and “I Will Survive” written by Freddie Peren and Dino Ferkaris and recorded by Gloria Gaynor. The music is delivered by fantastic musicians Steven A. Taylor (keys), Joseph Love (bass) and Josh Willis (drums).
However, this is a pretty predictable script that never becomes a full story. As a product, it is closer to a musical revue than a musical, but without sufficient connective tissue. Such a situation then requires strong singers, and element that is missing from this production. Casting a musical with engaging actors who sort of sing is a curious choice. At the Saturday matinee reviewed, one performer rarely matched pitch with the musicians. Singing off-key is disconcerting during a solo (“My Man,” and “Stormy Weather”), but it is unbearable during harmonies. Among the songs in this collection is “I Have Nothing” which was practically immortalized by Whitney Houston; it might have been better to cut that number.
Billins has the strongest vocals and has also given her character dimension, making Roberta the fully fleshed out character in the show. Hewitt has a nice comic sense and is a lot of fun to watch. Her character is the youngest with the sassiest lines, but it is Hewitt’s physicality that gives Tamika color.
Part of the predictability in the script is in having a white character stereotyped as the brunt of the joke and sometimes the object of criticism. Bedford handles her character with honesty and confidence. Her performance of Nina Simone’s “Images” is one of the most successful numbers in the show, aided by an interpretative dance by Hewitt.
In addition to Bedford’s number, other successful numbers include India.Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” (Thomas, Bedford, and Billins), Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone” (Hewitt and the cast), and Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” with the full cast.
Sistas the Musical is a hodgepodge of recollections and reveals, and while the piece has structural misses, it overcomes those and lives up to a mission to being entertaining.
Correction: Aug. 10, 2019: The original review had the characters of Gloria and Heather mixed, and the character Calvin was misidentified. Also, due to an editor's error, the song "I Am Not My Hair" was attributed to the wrong singer; it was sung by India.Arie. TheaterJones regrets the errors.