Updated: Nov 16, 2021
"...Yes, those singing shtickmeisters from the Church of Philly Soul with their jubilant choral numbers are giving invigorating inspiration as we scoot on into the holiday season."
When the wimples start quivering, the pinched mouths break into sunbeam smiles, and the nuns start rocking to raise the Gothic rafters, all seems to be right in the kingdom of musical comedy at “Sister Act.”
But who can resist the vision of a stage full of saintly sisters flaring their gams in unison like the Rockettes, or swiveling their hips, Supremes style, to the silken beat of an R&B tune? Presumably nobody in the audience at the Long Beach Playhouse, where this latest stage adaptation of the hit movie, directed by Rovin Jay (“Hair,” “Flight”), is taking audience members to heaven through November 20th on their mainstage.
Yes, those singing shtickmeisters from the Church of Philly Soul with their jubilant choral numbers are giving invigorating inspiration as we scoot on into the holiday season. Based on the movie starring Whoopi Goldberg as a club singer forced to smother her sequined soul beneath a nun’s habit after she witnesses a murder, “Sister Act” has been seen in several previous incarnations, most successfully in London. And this reworked version features a seasoning of new gags supplied by the gifted comic playwright Douglas Carter Beane (“The Little Dog Laughed,” ”Xanadu”).
As adapted by the book writers, Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, and scored by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), this sentimental story of a bad girl showing the good sisters how to get down earned five Tony nominations, including nods for best musical, best score and best book. It had the misfortune of competing against the juggernaut “The Book of Mormon” at the time.
The show's premise follows the basic template of Joseph Howard’s screenplay. Original fish-out-of-water Deloris Van Cartier is a Philly disco diva lounge singer who witnesses her gangster boyfriend Curtis and his henchmen ice one of his goons, and goes on the lam when the bullets start flying her way. To protect her from being killed by the gang, Deloris goes incognito under witness protection in a convent where she has to adjust to life as Sister Mary Clarence, and takes charge of the convent choir. Ironically, Eddie (James F. Webb III, “The Wiz”), the policeman assigned to guard her, has had a crush on her since high school, opening the door to romance.
Natasha Reese (“Into the Woods”), making her debut at Long Beach Playhouse in a big way, has a radiant presence and a strong voice with a tangy timbre. As Deloris Van Cartier, she truly comes into her own when Deloris sheds her purse full of wisecracks and begins bonding with the friendly nuns cowed by the church’s stern mother superior, played by Megan Cherry (Int’l Tour: “West Side Story”).
For even when Deloris is shimmying in a leopard miniskirt in the show’s opening number, Ms. Reese somehow exudes sweetness and sincerity, and you immediately relate to her. This makes the heroine’s transition from sassy sinner to sympathetic musical instructor all the more believable. And when she is slashing away at the sky with her arms, reaching for heavenly endorsement as she exhorts her flock of gawky nuns to shed their inhibitions and let the spirit put their hips in motion, Ms. Reese is a delight to watch ("Raise Your Voice," "Take Me To Heaven").
Interestingly, the creative team has bumped the story back in time, shifting the action from present-day Reno/San Francisco to 1970s Philadelphia. And while Goldberg’s Deloris favored Motown, Ms. Reese’s is all about that sweet Philly soul sound, with a big dose of disco ("Fabulous Baby," "Sister Act")
And Ms. Cherry has a lot of vocal heft under that habit, too, whose role in other productions has consisted mainly of looking on disapprovingly as Deloris charms the nuns into rebelling against the mother superior’s strictures.
But with Director Jay setting the scenes here, Ms. Cherry gives a rewardingly human-scaled performance along with some powerful vocals ("Here Within These Walls," "I Haven't Got a Prayer").
Deloris’s converts to the cause are played with genial comic finesse by Alana Ruhe (“The Little Mermaid”) as the jolly Sister Mary Patrick; Erika Cruz (“Evita”) as the sweetly mousy postulant Mary Robert; and the particularly funny Tree Henson (The Gourmet Detective Dinner Theater) as the puckered-up, sarcastic Sister Mary Lazarus.
Composer Alan Menken, who wrote the lustrous period-pop score for “Little Shop of Horrors,” teams again with lyricist Glenn Slater (his collaborator on the stage version of The Little Mermaid) to cook up a tuneful original score of lush funk grooves, entrusted to a cast of strong singers. The male roles are expanded via songs like Mr. Webb's "I Could Be that Guy" or Mr. Warren's "When I Find My Baby," that evoke The O’Jays, The Spinners, The Stylistics and Lou Rawls, while the girls channel The Three Degrees, Patti LaBelle and — stepping beyond Philly city limits in style — Donna Summer.
Stephen Olear‘s orchestrations time-travel amusingly back to the period, while choreographer Sonya L. Randall‘s Soul Train-meets-hip-hop moves are a little more lax about the ’70s mandate. And here also, dutiful versions of musical-theater sacraments are supplied, along with plenty of climactic soul-baring ballads for Mr. Warren, Mr. Webb, Ms. Reese, Ms. Cruz, and even the mother superior herself, Ms. Cherry.
In the second act, the musical catches fire, the walls pulsate like a dance floor under hot lights, and the nuns give voice to their discovery that piety does not necessarily preclude an indulgence in vocal pyrotechnics and synchronized dance routines. And when these holy-rolling roof-raisers break out into their rousing gospel numbers, which grow more lavish as the evening proceeds, the church is transmogrified into a loose reproduction of the old Limelight, a Manhattan nightclub that was housed in a former church in the 1980s.
The fantastic supporting cast includes Stephen Biggs (“The Lion in Winter”) as Monsignor O’Hara, Demetri Mack (BFA-American Musical & Dramatic Academy) as TJ, David Poncé (“Into the Woods”) as Joey, Dimitri Tiatia-Garaud (“Hamlet”) as Pablo, Agnes Chan (Held2gether Improv) as Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours, Sally Cavanagh (Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey Clown Clg.) as Sister Mary Theresa, Jessica Bill (“The Tempest”) as Michelle and Ensemble, Kylie Buckles-Hall (“Sister Act”) as Tina and Ensemble, Avi Spitzer (“Beauty and the Beast”) as Ernie and Ensemble, Staysha Torrez (“Hair”) as Swing for Deloris and Ensemble, Cisco De Luca (“Nineteen Years Later”) as Male Swing and Ensemble, Amanda Smith (“A Wall Apart”) as Dancer and Ensemble, Brett Popiel (“Footloose”) as Dancer and Ensemble, and Peyton Turowski (“Guys and Dolls”) as Dancer and Ensemble.
Directed by Rovin Jay, Choreography is by Sonya L. Randall, Stage Manager/Prop Master is Megan Bates, Set Design is by Greg Fritsche, Lighting Design is by Szu-Yun Wang, Sound Design is by Andrew Wilcox, Costume Design is by Christina Bayer. Madison Mooney is Executive Director, Sean Gray is Producing Artistic Director and Jesse Bosworth is Technical Director. Orchestra includes Stephen Olear (Musical Director), Jeff Fish, Nick Shewchuk, Jerry Barba, Iggi El Kouatli, Willow Mercury Ardelean and John Vann.
Long Beach Playhouse presents, “Sister Act,” performing October 23rd — November 20th, Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. COVID vaccine verification required and masks are mandatory in the theater. For tickets and information, please visit https://lbplayhouse.org/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Michael Hardy Photography