Volume 76, Number 51 | May 16 -22, 2007

Theater

“The Apple Sisters Variety Show”
Friday May 25 at 7 p.m.
The Peoples Improv Theater
154 West 29th Street
(212-563-7488; thepit-nyc.com)

Villager photo by Will McKinley

From left, The Apple Sisters: Rebekka Johnson, Kimmy Gatewood and Sarah Lowe.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

Showbiz roots are at the core of this comedic girl troupe

By Will McKinley

The year is 1943. America is mired in the depths of World War II and a nervous nation turns to the radio to forget its troubles. And each month, live from the studios of WXYZ in New York City, the singing, swinging Apple Sisters do their bit to put a bounce in Uncle Sam’s step and a smile on his collective face.

That’s the premise of “The Apple Sisters Variety Show,” a joyous musical comedy revue at the People’s Improv Theater in Chelsea, written and performed by Kimmy Gatewood, Rebekkah Johnson and Sarah Lowe in the style of an old-time radio broadcast.

“We all share a love for the music of the 1940’s,” said Gatewood, who plays “dumb blonde” Cora Apple, after a recent performance. “There’s such a simplicity to it; it’s fun and it sounds beautiful.”

Gatewood, Johnson, Lowe and musical director Tom Thomsen create a brand new show every month, tagged to the holidays that we celebrate in the good old U.S. of A. For the “April Fools” installment, the Sisters danced in Easter bonnets, performed slapstick comedy with raw eggs and sang a catchy jingle about the joys of smoking new Julep cigarettes (“freshens you up with every puff”). Like Jack Benny’s “Lucky Strike Program” and other popular shows of the era, “The Apple Sisters Variety Show” is sponsored by a cigarette company, but it’s safe to say that Benny’s announcer never concluded his commercials with a comedic coughing fit.

“The show is both a throwback and a satire,” Thomsen told me. “There are a lot of anachronisms and I think it adds flavor to the retro style.”

One example is Johnson’s tomboyish Candy Apple, whose unseen “husband” is stationed on the South Pacific island of Bora Bora. “I just got a letter from my husband Cheryl,” Candy announced to her confused sisters during the Mail Room segment.

“That’s a funny name for a boy,” answered Lowe, the “pure and innocent” Seedy Apple.

“I’m playing with the fact that they would never talk about being gay in that time period,” Johnson told me. “And my grandfather was actually stationed on Bora Bora, so it’s a bit of an homage.”

Although Gatewood, Johnson, and Lowe have only done three shows since their Valentine’s Day debut at The PIT, The Apple Sisters were conceived nearly three decades ago.

“My mom was a dancer on Broadway, and she and a girlfriend came up with the name when they were on tour back in the ’70s. Now she thinks she should get royalties,” Lowe joked. “We don’t talk anymore.”

Gatewood and Johnson, both improv instructors at The PIT, developed the show and then invited Lowe, fresh off a two-year stint in the Las Vegas production of “Mamma Mia,” to join the act. It was only then that they discovered that Lowe’s DNA is practically over-flowing with showbiz history.

“My mom’s mom and her two sisters had a local radio program here in New York back in the 1930s and ’40s,” Lowe told me. “They were known as The Clark Sisters.”

But as Al Jolson famously said: “Wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”

“My other grandmother, on my father’s side, was Ruby Keeler, who starred in the original movie version of ‘42nd Street’ in 1933,” Lowe added. “When I was a kid, I used to put on shows for her with my cousins. I’d be like, ‘We’re going to Grandma Ruby’s closet and we’re choreographing a show!’ She loved that.”

Lowe may not have known it as a child, but her Grandma Ruby is a musical icon, having tap-danced her way from speakeasies to Broadway and into the arms of Al Jolson, whom she married at the tender age of 18 (and divorced at 29). But she is most fondly remembered as the wide-eyed showgirl in a series of gritty, Depression-era movie musicals choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley.

“Her movies would be on in the background when I would visit, but I thought everybody’s grandparents were on TV,” Lowe said.

“Just like our kids will feel,” added Gatewood.

“You mean how my kids will feel,” Johnson joked, cracking up her fellow cast members.

Eventually Lowe figured out who her grandmother actually was. Lowe’s mom Gwen Hillier remembers it well.

“I was in a production of ‘42nd Street’ in Anaheim when Sarah was eight years-old,” she told me over the phone. “They introduced Grandma Ruby as the original Peggy Sawyer and everybody in the theatre stood up and applauded her. It was thrilling. I think that was the first time Sarah realized.”

The good news is “The Apple Sisters Variety Show” more than lives up to its prestigious pedigree. It’s a tight thirty-minutes of close harmony, ingenious choreography and broad comedy; a pitch-perfect recreation of a time when radio was king and singing girl groups like The Andrews Sisters were its queens.

“Sometimes you see musicals that try to be funny, but they’re not,” Johnson said. “But we’re comedians, and it’s fun to do a musical our way.”

For now, the Sisters plan to continue their monthly shows at The PIT with eyes on the very same street that Lowe’s Grandma once graced, and will forever represent.

“Of course I want to be on Broadway,” Lowe said. “I grew up backstage and that was always my dream.”

“We all dream of that,” Gatewood agreed. “In that sense we’re just like our characters.”


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