The convent is alive with the sound of disco as on-the-lam nightclub chantoozie Deloris Van Cartier teaches the nuns of The Holy Order of the Little Sisters of Our Mother of Perpetual Faith a lesson in Booty-Shaking For The Lord in Sister Act, the most all-around entertaining Musical Theatre West premiere in years.
Like the 1992 movie that inspired it, Sister Act The Musical places its heroine in the wrong place at the wrong time—eyewitness to her gangster boyfriend’s latest hit—with nowhere to find refuge but a local nunnery, surroundings in which she sticks out like a sore thumb.
Not surprisingly, it takes little to no time for the freshly dubbed Sister Mary Clarence (Constance Jewell Lopez) to find herself at loggerheads with the convent’s by-the-Holy-Book Mother Superior (Mary Gordon Murray).
Less expected, perhaps, is how very quickly the reluctant sister bonds with her fellow nuns, most particularly with the incurably upbeat Sister Mary Patrick (Cindy Sciacca), the meek and mild postulant Sister Mary Robert (Ashley Ruth Jones), and the ever crotchety Sister Mary Lazarus (Cathy Newman).
Given the task of whipping the convent’s unharmonious choir into musical shape, Sister Mary Clarence finds her coaching so effective that before you know it, Sunday parishioners are filling the pews like never before, the choir and its director are attracting media attention, and police detective Eddie Souther (Anthony Manough), who engineered Deloris’s convent hideout, begins to worry that media attention will give away her safe haven and have her gangster boyfriend Curtis (Gerry McIntyre) and his Three Stooges henchmen Pablo (Elijah Reyes), Joey (Spencer Rowe), and TJ (John Wells III) showing up at the convent doors, pistols in hand.
Already an audience favorite in its 2006 World Premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, Sister Act boosts a surefire storyline, a colorful disco-era late 1970s time frame, and a bunch of Alan Menken melodies to rival the composer’s best.
The Broadway version (book once again by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner but with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane) savvily retains all of this, including Deloris’s “Take Me To Heaven” and “Fabulous, Baby,” plus some new ditties including a sisterhood-celebrating Menkin/Glenn Sater title song.
Directing Sister Act for MTW is two-time Ovation Award winner Michael Matthews, who brings to the big stage the same imagination and attention to detail he has given his multitude of hit 99-seat shows, and who is once again joined by his sensational The Color Purple star, the Ovation-winning dynamo that is Lopez, proving herself as adept at comedy and sass as she was in her dramatic turns as TCP’s Sophia and Dreamgirls’ Effie White, adding up to a performance that may have you asking yourself “Whoopie who?”
And speaking of Southland treasures, it’s hard to imagine a more delightful duo than Newman and Sciacca, who pay tribute to the movie’s Mary Wickes and Kathy Najimy while making the two laugh-getters very much their own creations.
Jones turns from lamb to lion in her standout supporting turn as Sister Mary Robert, her rendition of “The Life I Never Had” proving every bit the show-stopper it’s written to be.
Velvet-voiced Manough proves himself his own kind of lady-killer as “Sweaty Eddie,” McIntyre is a deliciously dangerous Curtis, Tom Shelton makes the very most of every Monsignor O’Hara moment, and the absolutely delightful Reyes, Rowe, and Wells give Larry, Mo, and Curly a run for their money as they pursue their nun on a run.
Last but very definitely not least is the Sister Act ensemble of nuns, Deloris backups, altar boys, barflies, and disco queens played to triple-threat perfection by Chessey Bennett, Sarah Benoit (Sister Mary Theresa), Chelle Denton, Nick Gardner, LaRece Hawkins (Michelle), Chris Holly (Ernie), Jorie Janeway, Jaclyn Kelly, Rachel Genevieve Kongos, Harper Miles (Tina), Adrian Mustain, Gabriel Navarro, Matthew Thurmond, Anthony Willis, and Grace Yoo, with special snaps to the scene-stealing J. Elaine Marcos as gone-bonkers Sister Mary Martin Of Tours.
Master choreographer Daniel Smith gets the nuns a-dancin’ to one disco-beat song after another, has the Stooges launching into classic backup singer moves when Curtis launches into song, and even finds ways for the homeless to shake their groove things.
Musical director David Lamoureux conducts (and plays drums in) Sister Act’s Broadway-caliber orchestra in addition to coaching the cast’s celestial harmonies.
Jean-Yves Tessier lights Sister Act sets (provided by The Music & Theatre Company) and Karen St. Pierre’s costumes (designed for The Tuacahn Theatre Center by Wilma Mickler) with particular pizzazz, and additional kudos go out to Audio Production Geeks, LLC (sound design), Michael Green (wig design), and Katie Marshall (properties).
Kelly Marie Pate is stage manager and Mary Ritenhour is assistant stage manager.
With its $231,605,150 box office take, Sister Act The Movie proved that discoing nuns could be as surefire moneymakers as that year’s other blockbuster hits Lethal Weapon 3, Patriot Games and Batman Returns. Not only does Sister Act The Musical prove every bit the crowd-pleaser, as staged by Musical Theater West, it is quite simply the feel-goodest show in town.
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
April 9, 2106
Photos: Caught In The Moment Photography