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A return to Stoneham — and sisterhood

Trio form bond in retelling Andrews story

From left: Kimberly Robertson, Laura DeGiacomo, and Kerri Jill Garbis play the Andrews Sisters in “Sisters of Swing’’ at Stoneham Theatre. From left: Kimberly Robertson, Laura DeGiacomo, and Kerri Jill Garbis play the Andrews Sisters in “Sisters of Swing’’ at Stoneham Theatre. (Neil Reynolds)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / July 1, 2011

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STONEHAM — They’ve been singing and dancing together for years. Backstage they laugh and cry and argue and tease. They’re the Andrews Sisters onstage — and more than a little bit offstage, too.

At the Stoneham Theatre through July 24, Laura DeGiacomo, Kerri Jill Garbis, and Kimberly Robertson don wigs and classic mid-20th-century American garb to play the Andrews Sisters in “Sisters of Swing.’’

“I play LaVerne, and I’m the most important one,’’ Garbis says, and all three crack up. “I’m really bossy — and by I, I mean Kerri Jill Garbis.’’

“Patty is more of the clown, and she’s the baby. She tends to get the big silly moments in the show,’’ says DeGiacomo, who plays her.

“And then there’s Mackie,’’ Robertson says, using the nickname for her character, Maxene. “Mackie just wants to be noticed. So Mackie does what she can to get that.’’

Sitting in a basement rehearsal room a week before the opening, in T-shirts and sweat pants, the actresses form a very modern kind of sisterhood. All three cop to being well suited to their roles. They first appeared in “Sisters of Swing’’ here in 2008 and made it the theater’s best-grossing musical ever, until a recent production of “42nd Street.’’ They remained friends after the run and took occasional outside gigs as the Andrews Sisters at corporate events, fund-raisers, and even a parade or two. Now they’re thrilled to be back together in a remount of the production.

Garbis compares the Andrews Sisters to the Destiny’s Child or Spice Girls of their day.

“And American as apple pie,’’ says Robertson. “They stood for so much.’’

The real-life trio was as big a singing group as America had in the 1930s and ’40s, with hits like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’’ and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.’’ They were especially popular during World War II, often performing for the troops overseas. But the actresses say the real-life sisters were also ahead of their time in their independence. The show includes a scene in which they stand up against racism in the military.

“Don’t you think if they were here today they’d be all out for equality and equal rights?’’ asks Garbis. “Absolutely,’’ say the other two.

The production also includes Steve Gagliastro in multiple roles — Carmen Miranda, for instance — and an eight-piece band conducted by musical director Mario Cruz, who plays piano onstage.

The three had never met before their auditions in 2008, but as the show went on, they bonded. Just after the end of the run, a vocal coach connected to DeGiacomo arranged a conference call for them with the real Patty, the only surviving Andrews sister, who lives in California.

DeGiacomo: “I said, ‘I’m Laura, and I play you.’ And she said, ‘Well, do you have a lot of personality?’ And I said, ‘Well, Miss Andrews, probably not as much as you, but I try.’ ’’

Having worked hard to master the harmonies transcribed for the show, Garbis asked Patty Andrews if the sisters ever wrote down their vocal arrangements. “She’s like, ‘Oh no, I’d pick a note, and Laverne would pick a note, and Maxene would pick a note, and then we’d all sing.’ ’’

The last three years have brought a flood of additional Andrews Sisters material to YouTube, the actresses say, so instead of the handful of clips available when they started, they can now see actual performances of the 20 songs in the show. But that’s not the most important change.

“What’s different for us is now we have a three-year-plus relationship and we all have more life experiences that we can bring to the table, and as an actor that’s invaluable,’’ says Garbis.

Those experiences include a cancer diagnosis for one’s mother and other personal and professional challenges they prefer not to talk about publicly. They all live north of Boston now, so they save that talk for shared dinners. And they hope that the end of “Sisters of Swing’’ won’t end that.

“The very final scene we have together, I can’t get through it, I’m just like a disaster,’’ says DeGiacomo, tearing up. “The monologue I have is [Patty] just talking about the war and her relationship with her sisters, that that’s what she’s really holding on to more than anything . . .’’

Tears, laughter, and teasing briefly take over the interview.

“This is what rehearsals are like,’’ says Robertson.

“I just can’t imagine not having such great friendships,’’ DeGiacomo says, wiping her eyes. “Friendships that have come unexpectedly and have meant a lot to me over the past few years. It’s much more emotional getting through that last monologue. It’s a tough one to get through. This time around it’s much more about the connections we’ve made and how lucky I feel. And the last song is called ‘Count Your Blessings.’ ’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

SISTERS OF SWING: The Story of the Andrews Sisters At: Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., Stoneham, through July 24. Tickets: $44-$48. 781-279-2200, www.stonehamtheatre.org.