This Feel-Good Blessed Event is Worth Celebrating!
When aspiring disco singer Deloris Van Cartier is placed in protective custody in a dying convent, her unique brand of funk comes face-to-face with the traditions of the church. Sometimes old habits are hard to change. Sometimes not!
But who could 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 Stage Door Repertory Theatre, where their latest production of “Sister Act” continues to run through this next weekend, closing on June 26th. Based on the 1992 Touchstone motion picture, also titled “Sister Act,” starring Whoopi Goldberg, the musical continues to be one of the most popular stage adaptations ever devised, thanks in no small part to one of Broadway’s most successful creative teams.
Film-to-musical stage adaptations don’t always translate to compelling musical values, but in this case, the music is by the resplendent 8-time Academy Award winner Alan Menken, who has teamed up once again with lyricist Glenn Slater (also collaborators on the stage version of “The Little Mermaid”) to render a tuneful original score of lush funk grooves, four on the floor rhythms, ballads and even gospel tunes, designed for a cast of strong singers.
The story has also been bumped back in time as well, shifting the action from 1990s San Francisco to 1970s Philadelphia — all about that sweet Philly soul sound, with a dose of disco. The male roles convey songs that elicit styles from The O'Jays, The Spinners, The Stylistics and Lou Rawls, while the females channel The Three Degrees, Patti LaBelle and Donna Summer. This production works hard to make us shout “Hallelujah,” especially Ms. Shandar Robinson in the role of Deloris, who is amply blessed with powerhouse vocals, solid comedic timing and plenty of Donna Summer, Tina Turner, Beyoncé and Whoopi Goldberg all rolled into one character.
Nominated for five Tony Awards in 2011, with a book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, the musical, co-directed/co-musically directed by Tyler Stouffer and Briana Bonilla, and choreographed by Anthony Tuason, follows the adventures of Deloris as a lounge singer who unintentionally becomes a witness to a murder by her notorious gangster boyfriend, Curtis Jackson (Van D. Hudson Jr.). To keep her alive, the police (headed by Lt. “Sweaty” Eddie, who has been sweet on her since high school) puts her on witness protection and stows her in a rather strait-laced convent on the verge of closing under the guise of new recruit Sister Mary Clarence.
At first, Deloris is chafing against the constraints of convent life, not to mention an immovable Mother Superior, but once she is introduced to the struggling choir at the convent, she finds another calling — directing the tone-deaf group of nuns, whom she rapidly whips into rafter-shaking form, in order to bring about some revelation in the floundering church.
As for Deloris and the good Reverend Mother, they have terrific melodramatic tension (Mother Superior’s “Here Within These Walls” “I Haven’t Got a Prayer”) as they face off on differences of opinion, balanced by scene stealer Eddie (TJ Punchard) in his solo, “I could be that guy,” featuring some solid dance moves and impressive tear-away costumes.
Ms. Robinson and Ms. Warner both project their characters with assurance. A vibrant singer, Ms. Robinson invests an underlying sweetness of soul into the raffish Deloris, which suggests why the nuns grow so attached to her. Ms. Warner gives the Mother Superior a prim smile of disapproval and a rigid demeanor and gravitas that unwillingly yields to Deloris’s unholy presence.
The score as a whole has a splendid musical arc, one largely absent from its Hollywood birth, giving the talented cast many opportunities to scintillate in the spotlight. As the story progresses, it all gets kicked up a notch with an ever-increasing stream of over-the-top numbers and dances, hilarious one-liners, delightfully irreverent passages and copious amounts of energy.
“Is there a smoking section?” ask Deloris of the Mother Superior. “Yes,” comes the answer, “and you’re headed there.”
Cocky bygone friend Curtis and his trio of lackeys have two delicious villain songs, “When I Find My Baby,” and in Act II, the comedy skit “Lady in the Long Dress,” both with very clever lyrics by Glenn Slater. The three provide much comedy relief as TJ (Kyle Hill), Curtis’ nephew, who is constantly in a state of ignorant bliss, Joey (Zachary Smart), who is totally convinced of his prowess as a lady’s man, and Pablo (Patrick J. Castillo), who only communicates in Spanish.
Michelle (Keely Jimenez) and Tina (Eliana Russoti), those lippy backup singers for Deloris’ former life, are featured in the first two numbers, “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous, Baby.”
Among the various sisters whose voices blend into sensational harmony is apple-cheeked Alana Ruhe as the giggling Sister Mary Patrick. Ms. Ruhe is consistently perky, enthusiastic, easily excitable and so much fun to watch. She lets her freak flag fly in several group numbers, such as “Raise Your Voice,” the second act’s “Take Me to Heaven” and “Bless Our Show.”
As Donna Nelson’s elderly piano-playing Sister Mary Lazarus — half nun, half marine — who relinquishes her control of the choir to Deloris, she comes off at first rather deadpan, but gets caught up in Deloris's soul music and then almost steals the show. Monsignor O'Hara (Eric J. Hindley) who was mostly concerned with financial matters, had accepted the fact the parish is closing until Deloris got there, then her soul music surprisingly turned him into a smooth, hipster MC.
LeeLee Jae astonishes as the shy postulant Sister Mary Robert, who was abandoned as a baby and raised at the convent. Her wallflower lifestyle has made her live a shell of a life, but with Deloris’ coaching, she strikes just the right balance between longing for more, standing up for herself and finding joy in what she has. Ms. Jae’s sweet composure, natural grace and innocent facial expressions match her role as Sister Mary Robert perfectly. As a member of the Deaf community, Ms. Jae signs her dialogue and singing in the show and is shadowed by astounding singer Fadeke Oparinde, an AMDA BFA who thrills every time she appears onstage. Both performers are inseparable and synchronize together as one complete role.
The main realization of "Sister Act" is that many girl-group hits of the 1960's were even more divine than many of us originally realized. And when that glitzed-up swinging choir began attracting new parishioners and wide publicity with modified versions of songs like “My Guy” and “I Will Follow Him” — and, unfortunately, the attention of Curtis, he sends his goons in pursuit. So, when a dozen nuns are found roaming free in a gambling casino and Deloris is being frantically hunted among all the habits, there are some dramatic and life-changing confrontations that take place.
And, for those who just can’t get enough “Sister Act,” Disney has officially revealed that "Sister Act 3" is in development, which will again star Whoopi Goldberg, and who will also co-produce the film along with Tyler Perry. The film will most probably premiere on Disney Plus later this year.
STAGE DOOR REPERTORY THEATRE proudly presents SISTER ACT, based on the Touchstone Pictures Motion Picture, “SISTER ACT,” written by JOSEPH HOWARD, with Book by CHERI & BILL STEINKELLNER; Additional Book Material by DOUGLAS CARTER BEANE; Music by ALAN MENKEN; Lyrics by GLENN SLATER; Director/Assistant Music Director TYLER STOUFFER; Music Director/Assistant Director BRIANA BONILLA; Choreographer ANTHONY TUASON; Costume Designer BRIANA BONILLA; Scenic Designer TYLER STOUFFER & SEAN ARNOLD; Lighting Designer NICK CHARLES; Stage Manager CHRISTINA CHAN. Executive Producers NICK CHARLES & JULIE CHARLES.
WITH: SHANDAR ROBINSON; ELIANA RUSSOTI; KEELY JIMENEZ; VAN D. HUDSON JR.; KYLE HILL; PATRICK J. CASTILLO; ZACHARY SMART; BRETT POPIEL; LUIS ENRIQUE; TJ PUNCHARD; NICHOLE WHITER; CAITLIN GREENFIELD; VERONIQUE WARNER; ERIC J. HINDLEY; LEELEE JAE; FADEKE OPARINDE; ALANA RUHE, DONNA NELSON; LUIS ENRIQUE; JOEJOE MCKINNEY; BRAXTON MCGRATH; JACQUELINE BROTHERTON; DANI BURR; CHRISTINE M. CARVER; MORGAN DELANEY; AMANDA DICKSON; MICHELLE KNIGHT REINHARDT; KRISTY TAKACS; SARAH VILLACARILLO; SEAN ARNOLD.
Performances are June 3rd through June 26th. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM, Sundays at 2:00PM. Stage Door Repertory Theatre is located at 1045 N. Armando St., Suite B - Anaheim Hills, CA 92806 - (714) 630-7378.
For Tickets and further information: http://www.stagedoorrep.org/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report