Who knew a song about mind-blowing sex with a man twice the singer’s age could end up being a gut-busting musical theater showstopper? Actually, seeing it on paper, maybe we could have seen that coming.
In MetroStage’s revival of Three Sistahs, that blockbuster number is “Barely Breathing.” Bernardine Mitchell gasps, pants, and wails her way through the terrific, hilarious song about her former professor’s prowess in bed. The musical may be about guilt, grief, and family secrets, but it doesn’t shirk away from welcome moments of comic relief, either.
Mitchell plays Olive, the oldest of the titular trio. The sisters are on their third funeral in three years, burying first their mother, then father, and now, most tragically, their youngest brother, a casualty of the Vietnam War. Set in Washington, DC, against a backdrop of civil unrest, the family is trying to come to terms with the fact that their father essentially forced his son into the military, with devastating consequences by singing their way through the pain. The play is a homecoming for MetroStage, too—the Alexandria theater is celebrating 30 years with remounts of some previous hits, including this show, which showcased two of its three stars in past productions.
The subject matter is heavy to be set to such a jazzy, doo-wop influenced score, but William Hubbard’s music usually works; “In My Father’s House,” despite its melancholy subject matter, is one of the catchiest tunes in the show. Ashley Ware Jenkins—who plays Irene, the youngest of the family and the angriest about the senselessness of the war and its civil rights implication—brings a lovely sort of pathos to the dark “Temple of My Dreams.” The sly, pragmatic Marsha (Roz White), ostensibly satisfied but struggling deep down with domesticity, gets her chance to shine on numbers like “Sometimes You Just Need a Change.”
Both the score and Thomas W. Jones II’s direction take advantage of the strengths and versatility of its performers, showcasing their voices through interesting harmonies, smart blocking, and songs that show off each singer’s range.
In the second act, Three Sistahs does veer into schmaltzy territory, and things get a little muddled. Directly singing the text letters from the sisters’ military father and brother is a little on the nose, and the play abruptly wraps up loose ends in its two closing musical numbers. But it’s still a refreshing, affecting celebration of the strength of family bonds—not to mention the strong women themselves.
Three Sistahs is at MetroStage through November 2. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($50 to $60) are available through the theater’s website. Find Missy Frederick on Twitter at @bylinemjf.