Only one cast member in the National Tour of Sister Act The Musical has been with the show since its World Premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse back in 2006 and that’s Melvin Abston, so who better than Melvin to give us a closer look at the Broadway hit, now touring the country and about to open at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts? Melvin’s many other credits include Memphis at the La Jolla Playhouse and the 5th Ave. Theatre, the National Tour of The Lion King, recurring roles on Grey’s Anatomy and Weeds, and multiple film and TV credits including roles on H+, Awake, Raising Hope, and Touch. Previously seen by this reviewer in PCPA’s Songs For A New World and his two SoCal appearances as “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Melvin took time out of his busy touring schedule to sit down and chat about his busy professional life.


Melvin, you’re a Chicago native. What does that mean to you?

Chicago is a city of rolled-up sleeves and hustle. If you don’t work, you don’t eat! That mentality bled through in my work ethic and how I performed. I was told that work begets work and I believe that.

How did you first get involved in music and performing?

I started off singing in an a cappella group long before American Idol and The Sing Off and other such shows. There was a theater that needed singers to portray Motown artists for a play. I went down, auditioned and was hired! That was the beginning of my career in theater.

Where did you get your early training?

My formative years were spent doing shows for the now defunct Chicago Theatre Company and the Black Ensemble Theatre. Those were my theater boot-camp days. I remember even before a script was written we would exercise. Literally run in formation all over the building one-by-one singing and spelling our names aloud while jogging and doing other calisthenics! We were told, you can’t do a show if you’re not in shape!

You’re New York based now, but you’ve done a good deal of work in California. Do you consider yourself a bicoastal actor these days?

I’ve given thought to that. It can be difficult to remain viable in both places at the same time. There’s a lot of effort to doing that. That said, I’ll go wherever the work takes me. Doing that had gotten me pretty far.

Your presence in the National Tour of Sister Act is particularly noteworthy since you appeared in the original Pasadena Playhouse production back in 2006. Can you talk a bit about your association with Sister Act, from when you first became part of the project to the Broadway run to its latest touring incarnation?

Back in 2006, I had just come off the “Cheetah”  National Tour of The Lion King where I originated the role of Banzai. I went back to Chicago for six days and decided to move to L.A. I did just that! After a couple months, I heard about an audition for Sister Act The Musical. I had no agent at the time, so an open call was my only way to be seen. I was a new fish in a big pond.

Can you talk a bit about that audition?

I recall how I walked into the area where the sign-in sheet was. There were two auditions happening at the same time, Fences, which starred Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, and Sister Act. I sat quietly to myself and saw people I’d seen on TV in the room. In fact, as I looked over music, I felt someone sit next to me and when I looked up to give a greeting, I discovered it was Heavy D smiling back at me! I was speechless for a bit. Needless to say, I got myself together went into the audition and got called back.

And then?

Fast-forward to the final callback in NYC. They began to group guys together for the “thugs.” We were learning “Lady In The Long Black Dress” and I was being “used,” in other words being sung to, as a nun being sweet talked. I’ll never forget. We all had black binders that held the music and in a moment of inspired panic I took the binder I had and placed it on my head as a wimple! The room broke up in laughter as did my fellow auditioners. In fact, the pairing I went in with ended up being cast along with me.


Melvin as the original TJ (with Dan Domenech and Danny Stiles) at the Pasadena Playhouse

And so you ended up originating the role of TJ at the Playhouse!

That’s right. We did the World Premiere of Sister Act at Pasadena Playhouse in conjunction with The Alliance Theatre of Atlanta. After successful runs in Pasadena and Atlanta, the show was taken to London and tweaked again. Two years later, it opened on Broadway, in April 2011!

Looking over the original Pasadena Playhouse program (I saw it there three times!) and comparing it with the Original Cast CD, I can see that there have been many changes, particularly in the second act song list. How much has Sister Act evolved from that original Pasadena production and in what ways have the writers made it a stronger show than it was back in its original form?

There were great ideas and material in the first incarnation in Pasadena and Atlanta. Alan Menken and Glenn Slater were involved back then, Peter Schneider was our director, and Bill and Cheri Steinkellner wrote the book. I felt we had a great show! Once it went to London and further morphed and finally got its chance for Broadway, more focus was given to tightening up the second act and also some of the trickier moments in the first act. Enter Douglas Carter Beane and the incomparable Jerry Zaks! Some lyrics were changed, new songs put in, and a reworking of the script brings us to the show we have now. It was a long process, but I love the show we have now as do our audiences.

In addition to your ensemble tracks, you’re covering and have gone on in several of the show’s major roles, including Curtis and T.J. Can you talk a bit about how an understudy prepares (and stays prepared) for going on at a moment’s notice?

Well the most beneficial thing at an actor’s disposal is rehearsal, which normally happens twice a week. It’s a safe place to pull different choices out to see if they work when the stakes are not as high as they are during a performance. Also, as crazy as it sounds, while backstage we tend to talk along with the show. I’ve seen and joined fellow castmates in the wings dancing and singing along with the actors on stage to stay sharp on choreography and blocking as well!

That’s fascinating! I had no idea. So, what are your favorite moments for each of the characters that you’ve played in Sister Act, moments that allow you to show what you can do as a performer, or simply moments that you enjoy?

I love all the scenes with TJ. He’s a sweet and simple kind of guy with the best intentions but he often falls short of the mark. Although he doesn’t have much stage time, every scene Curtis gets to do not only advances the plot, he gets to be the heavy. It’s so fun to stand stock still and deliver some of those lines. When I can hear audible gasps from the house, I get tingles!

Melvin (r.) and the original Deloris Van Cartier–Whoopi Goldberg

Sister Act The Musical tells the same story as the Whoopi Goldberg movie, but with a whole bunch of new songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. How do these songs help to enhance the Sister Act storyline?

To be fair, the movie’s songs are classics. They’re known from the time period when they first were popular, but then the film reintroduced them to a whole new audience. The music in the musical, all original, has to help propel the story line without the aid of people being familiar with it. A tall order indeed, but Alan Menken and Glenn Slater knocked it out of the park! Catchy melodies, great lyrics, and a cast that nightly sing their faces off gives good reason to forgive those classics from not being included.

Any favorite songs?

“Lady in The Long Black Dress” slays the audience nightly, and to get to do that every so often is really good for the ego. No matter how subdued the audience seems to be throughout the show, that number always livens them up! “When I Find My Baby” is such a great tune as well. A serious song but the humor is still allowed to be present without being played at anyone’s expense. I still get chills during “Raise Your Voice” and “The Life I Never Led.”

You’ve toured previously with The Lion King and now with Sister Act. How do you take to the touring life? 

I enjoy touring very much. To get to see cities I’d probably never get to travel to, become friendly with the locals, support the businesses in the area and the food! I’ve had some of the best meals in my life while of tour.

How much time to you get to spend in the various cities you stop in?

Despite having only a week in most cases, we get to experience quite a bit of the places we travel to during the tour.

Are there any cities that you’ve particularly enjoyed?

I’ll say my Top 5 stops are, in no particular order … Charlotte, NC: Crave. A dessert bar with amazing food, great service and stylish decor. I love that place! Philadelphia, PA: Miss Tootsie’s. Soul Food so good that a group of twenty of us hardly made a peep while dining—minus the forks hitting the plates and the occasional mmms and exclamations! Cincinnati, OH: Belgium Waffle. The classic chicken and waffle with a tasty twist: waffle and chicken. Not to be missed!! Chicago, IL, my hometown. Gibson’s for an amazing steak or wonderful seafood. A must is Whirlyball! One part bumper cars, one part basketball, one part lacrosse equals memories for a long time and it’s great for company morale! Boston MA: History lives around every corner of that great city. Especially fond of Paramount for great breakfast on Charles St. and Sip on Washington for a post show libation and meal.

I’d guess that Sister Act’s Southern California stops are special for you. What do you enjoy most about performing here? 

Most people think of SoCal as only a film and TV mecca. Hollywood and TMZ…blah blah blah. Okay, it’s true, but that’s for tourists. There is amazing theater here! Boston Court, Pasadena Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, Celebration Theatre, Rogue Machine Theatre, Lower Depth Theatre Company, CTG, Open Fist Theatre Company, and the list goes on and on! These are places that provide alternatives to the industry norm here where artists feed their souls! It’s a necessity as much as breathing is. I truly hope to get as much hugging and catching up with my L.A. family as I can!

Melvin between scenes on the set of TV’s Weeds

You’ve accumulated quite a film and TV résumé. How different is it for you to “act for the camera” as opposed to acting for a live audience of a thousand or more?

Art is Life is Truth. The common thread is that a moment played before an unblinking camera lens or before thousands of eyes has to come from a place of honesty. Of realness. Even in a farce, high comedy or melodrama, truth is the actor’s ally. Of course the differences exist between the two. Depending on the shot for film/TV, there may be only so much room, so one has to stay within the parameters of what the camera will capture. You cannot be so “big” that half of what you do for the camera is lost because the shot is tight on your face. Oppositely, on stage when one does not speak or sing to the back of the house, there’s a portion of the audience being cheated out of a performance. If you don’t hold the audience’s attention, an empty stage with just yourself on it can swallow you whole.

Are there any film/TV roles that you’ve particularly enjoyed or that stand out for you?

I had an incredible experience filming in Santiago de Chile for a web series for Warner Bros, on youtube called H+: The Digital Series. We found locations that doubled for Ireland, Africa, Turkey, Italy, Canada all in and around Santiago. Breathtaking nature, talented colleagues and again really good food! I also had a blast while recurring on Showtime’s Weeds, where I got to play foul mouthed Detective Tyson Betz.

Mitch Mahoney songs20l
Melvin  in The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee (l.) and in Songs For A New World (r.)

You’ve worked a whole lot on stage as well, in musicals with huge casts and spectacular costumes, and in more intimate musicals like Spelling Bee and Songs For A New World. Any preference between the two?

Not at all! I enjoy hearing the roar of laughter and applause from larger houses. It’s invigorating to say the least. But there’s also nothing like being able to hear a pin drop in a 99-seat theater (or smaller). In those instances there’s a much more personal feel to the show. It’s as if the performers and audience are sharing the story together and are conjoined for the ride. I love both scenarios.

Looking back over your musical theater career, is there any one role that stands out for you the most? 

Wow. I’m not sure that I can honestly answer that. It’s not quite like asking “which child is your favorite?” … but it’s just as tough to imagine answering that. And for the record, I love all three of my (no longer) babies!! I’ve had the honor of being a part of a worldwide mega hit with The Lion King and been able to have worked on shows that went on to Broadway with Memphis and Sister Act, and to actually perform on Broadway and tour across the nation. I’m blessed and fortunate to have been given chances like those.

Is there any one role that you’ve got your eyes set on to play “one of these days”?

As far as “one of these days”… I’m open to wherever opportunity takes me. That’s not a cop-out. I’m sincere when I say that. Going with the flow and being willing has me where I am right now. That said, I’ve heard rumors that Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles is being worked on for Broadway. I’d be down like four flat tires to take on the role of Sheriff Bart!

I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.  In the meantime, I can’t wait to see you onstage at the Segerstrom Center…and at the stage door after the show on Opening Night!

Click here for tickets to Sister Act The Musical, playing August 6 to 18 at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Sister Act website

Melvin Abston Official Website

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