‘Sistas’ Makes Powerful Musical Debut

ennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, left, as Roberta, Lisa Graham as Gloria, Sarina-Joi Crowe as Tamika and Aleta Myles as Simone in Tennessee Women's Theater Project's production of

Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, left, as Roberta, Lisa Graham as Gloria, Sarina-Joi Crowe as Tamika and Aleta Myles as Simone in Tennessee Women’s Theater Project’s production of “Sistas: The Musical.” (Photo: Eric Ventress Photography)

The Tennessean – by Amy Stumpft, Tennessean, Theater review – February 24, 2017

There’s no question that music can heal the heart. But it also offers a unique way to explore social change. And that’s certainly the case with Tennessee Women’s Theater Project’s delightful production of “Sistas: The Musical.”

Penned by former Vanderbilt University professor Dorothy Marcic, this uplifting story centers on a group of African-American women brought together by the passing of their family’s matriarch. As they sort through her belongings in search of inspiration for a meaningful memorial service, they share the memories and music that have shaped their lives, from Bessie Smith to Beyoncé.

As with any jukebox musical, the story is loosely constructed to showcase the music, with characters existing primarily as archetypes. But Marcic’s script goes deeper than most, effectively drawing attention to changing mores and attitudes among black women and throughout American society.

But let’s face it, we’re here for the music. And on that note, this capable cast more than delivers — from traditional gospel and blues to Motown and modern hip-hop.

Nashville stage veteran Aleta Myles makes her first appearance at TWTP as Simone, a hard-working single mom and classic overachiever. Myles has a lovely presence onstage, offering a tender rendition of “Stormy Weather.” But it’s her sassy delivery of “I Will Survive” that is most fun.

Young Sarina-Joi Crowe shines as Tamika, Simone’s daughter, who often finds herself on the receiving end of her aunties’ well-intended advice. Crowe, who was a Top 12 finalist on Season 14 of “American Idol,” definitely has style, making fine work of songs like “Respect,” “I Have Nothing” and “Tyrone.”

Lisa Graham shows off her beautiful soprano as Gloria, a woman of strong opinions and stronger faith. Graham kicks off the evening with a rousing “Oh Happy Day.” But she knows how to cut loose, too. And together with the company, she makes “Single Ladies” one of the evening’s highlights.

Brittany Nelson also succeeds as Heather, the women’s white sister-in-law. Her “Society’s Child” and “Beautiful” are big standouts.

But it’s Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva who makes the strongest impression as the sharp-tongued Roberta. Whitcomb-Oliva brings some nice humor to the piece with songs such as “Tain’t Nobody’s Business.” But it’s the powerful “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” and “Strange Fruit” that really resonate.

Director Maryanna Clarke demonstrates her usual eye for detail, receiving a worthy assist from music director Eric Dozier. (It would be wonderful to have a live band performing, but the recorded tracks are generally strong.) And Pam Atha’s lively choreography adds to the evening’s fun, particularly with the aforementioned “Single Ladies” and a snappy Motown medley.

“Sistas” marks the first time that TWTP has produced a musical — and I can’t think of a more fitting piece for the company.

If you go

What: Tennessee Women’s Theater Project presents “Sistas: The Musical”

When: Through March 5. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays.

Where: Z. Alexander Looby Theater, 2301 Rosa L. Parks Blvd., Nashville

Tickets$15-$20 ($10 on Thursdays)

Contact: www.twtp.org or www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2593618.