Years ago, when I interviewed the legendary local performer Mary Martello over dinner, she effused about her close friendship with another well-regarded leading lady, Joilet Harris. Their rapport is evident and available for all to see in Sisters!, a cabaret devised by the pair for the Arden Theatre Company, streaming through June 13.
A peek behind the curtain
The revue takes its title from the classic White Christmas duet, which opens the hour-long program, but it also refers to a relationship that has evolved beyond mere friendship. Although Harris and Martello have followed different career paths, weathered different personal challenges, and played many disparate roles, their kinship is undeniable. And like the sweetest of siblings, they seem to speak in a special language all their own, so that audience members feel as if they are eavesdropping on a backstage confab.
This is one of the reasons that cabaret remains such a seductive format—it allows you to see the artist at her most intimate, beyond the characters she has played onstage. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed Martello as Mama Rose and Mrs. Lovett (both at the Arden), and marveled at Harris’s ability to limn powerhouse musical roles, bawdy comedic dames, and wrenching contemporary dramas. What a pleasure it is to discover they are both just as adroit playing themselves.
This peek behind the curtain—which is directed by Arden artistic director Terry Nolen, and helmed musically by Gina Giachero—includes frank discussion of day jobs and divorce, raising children and chasing the parts that got away. Martello and Harris both speak warmly about finding fulfilling romantic love in their sixties. They even squabble over exactly when they met: Was it 1996, as Harris remembers it, or 1989, as Martello recalls?
Two perspectives, one friendship
A long, forthright conversation occupies much of the production’s center section. The topics veer into the coronavirus pandemic and the racial justice uprisings of 2020, both issues that have resonated throughout the artistic community. Harris offers her perspective as a Black woman and performer on roles she missed because the theater might have preferred to cast a white actor instead.
“There are times when I would get really PO’d because Mary will work all the time in Philadelphia, because she’s white,” Harris says at one point. “I have to go where the roles are for the African American, POC actors and actresses.” At this point, and also in lighter moments, you sense real conversation and connection between the two women. They are not performing friendship; they are living their truths, and a camera just happens to be capturing it.
Personalities in song
Of course, their personalities also emerge through song. Both women are ideally suited to the cabaret format because they’re not just singers—they’re stylists. Harris puts on the mien of a torch singer to deliver an arresting rendition of the jazz standard “Lush Life,” while Martello nails the particular sprechstimme idiom of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in “Surabaya Johnny.” Each stops the show with a signature number from a show they’ve done before, be it the rousing “I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray or the delightfully louche “Heart to Hart” from 9 to 5: The Musical. They come together deliciously for “You’ve Gotta Get a Gimmick” from Gypsy, where instead of bumping it with a trumpet, they let loose on kazoos.
Production designer Chris Haig furnishes an attractive, spare playing area, dominated mostly by a pair of twin dressing tables that burst forth with mementos from the performers’ lives in the theater. Dom Chacon provides effective, mood-enhancing lighting, and Tristan Horan’s camerawork is probing but not intrusive.
Grit and grace
I’ve long wished for a more robust cabaret culture in Philadelphia, especially one that would allow more of our talented local artists to show alternate sides of their personalities. Sisters! could easily serve as a blueprint for how to execute that kind of concert with grit and grace. Harris and Martello sure know how to razzle dazzle—to borrow from the evening’s closing number—but they also know how to draw the viewer in with wisdom and wit.
Image description: A scene from Sisters! Joilet Harris, a Black woman wearing a red dress, and Mary Martello, a white woman wearing a dark blue dress, stand onstage in the same pose with their arms outstretched. Behind them are two dressing tables and a rack of costumes.
What, When, Where
Joilet Harris and Mary Martello: Sisters! Devised by Joilet Harris and Mary Martello. Directed by Terry Nolen. Arden Theatre Company. Streaming on a donation basis through June 13, 2021. Ardentheatre.org.
Sisters! is closed-captioned.