A triumphant Daebreon Poiema and a sublime Debbie Prutsman head a terrifically talented, bigger-than-Broadway cast of nearly three-dozen in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Sister Act, as tuneful and crowd-pleasing a musical comedy treat as I’ve seen up Ventura County ways in many a moon.

Like the 1992 movie that inspired it, Sister Act The Musical places its hapless heroine, bodacious nightclub chantooze Deloris Van Cartier (Poiema), 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 to find herself at loggerheads with the convent’s by-the-Holy-Book Mother Superior (Debbie Prutsman).

Less expected, perhaps, is how very quickly the reluctant sister bonds with her fellow nuns, most particularly with incurably upbeat Sister Mary Patrick (Francesca Barletta), meek-and-mild postulant Sister Mary Robert (Chelsea Morgan Stock), and ever crotchety Sister Mary Lazarus (Karla J. Franko).

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 (Wilkie Ferguson III), who engineered Deloris’s convent hideout, begins to worry that media attention will give away her safe haven and have her gangster boyfriend Curtis (Dedrick Bonner) and his Three Stooges henchmen Joey (David Kirk Grant), Pablo (John Paul Batista), and TJ (Kenneth Mosley) 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.

Misti B. Wills directs for Cabrillo with abundant panache and attention to creating believable characters amidst the comedic mayhem, and she is rewarded by one ab-fab performance after another.

In what will be remembered as one of the year’s most stunning star turns, the dazzling Poiema not only gives Deloris glamour, sass, pluck, beauty, and heart, her pop star pipes provide a certain Donna a run for her disco queen money.

SoCal treasure Prutsman follows her eight-tentacled scene-stealing. Scenie-winning Ursula The Sea Monster in Cabrillo’s The Little Mermaid with a magnificent Mother Superior, master of the dry retort and ready to bring down the house with a goose bump-raising “Haven’t Got A Prayer.”

Singing nuns don’t get any more deliciously ditsy or vibrantly voiced than Barletta’s personification-of-perky Sister Mary Patrick, Franko’s wacky, wise-cracking, rhyme-busting Sister Mary Lazarus, Hallie Mayer’s long-past-her-prime Sister Mary Theresa, or Tania Pasano Storr’s gone-beyond-wacko Sister Mary Martin Of Tours, and a luminous Stock, fresh from Broadway, stops the show with Sister Mary Roberts’ heartfelt, spectacularly sung “The Me I Never Knew.”

Dumb-dumber-and-dumberer has rarely been more delightful than Three Stooges Grant, Batista, and Mosley, whose “Lady In A Long Black Dress” proves as hilarious as it is delectably sung and danced, and Terri K. Woodall and Fay James provide Dreamgirls-ready backup for Poiema’s Deloris as Deena Jones.

Fergusson shows that even nerds like “Sweaty Eddie” can charm with the best of them and vocalize with velvet pipes, Bonner’s hilariously mean-and-nasty Curtis sports a fro for the ages, David Gilchrist gives Monsignor O’Hara plenty of Irish spark, and Ron de la Peña does double duty as Ernie and The Pope.

Beating Broadway’s cast of twenty-seven by a full half-dozen, Cabrillo’s ensemble (Bernadette Bentley, Jacob Byrd, Gwen Carole, Amanda Carr, de la Pena, Zy’Heem Downey, Jenna Elise, Catriona Fray, Erin Grandell, Lekeisha Renee Houston, James, Alyssa Noto, Katie Porter, Rile Reavis, Shanta’ Marie Robinson, Dana Shaw, Marie Spieldenner, Tyler Stouffer, Natalia Vivino, Woodall, and Kendyl Yokoyama) shine brightly as nuns, altar boys, barflies, and disco kings and queens, and just wait till they shake their groove things to Michelle Elkin’s sparklingly eclectic choreography, the singing nuns’ Rockettes-ready kicks earning particular cheers.

With musical director Kyle C. Norris conducting the Cabrillo Music Theatre orchestra and sound designer Jonathan Burke providing an expert mix of vocals and instrumentals, Sister Act sounds as “fabulous baby” as it looks thanks to The Music And Theatre Company’s sets, Christina L. Munich’s lighting, Helen Butler’s Tuacahn Center For The Arts costumes, Daniel Robles’s wigs and hair, Trina White’s makeup, and Alex Choate’s props.

Art Brickman is production stage manager. Jack Allaway is technical director and Char Brister is crew captain. John Gaston is pit singer.

Forget The Sound Of Music, Nunsense 1, 2, and 3, or Nuncrackers. Singing sisters have rarely entertained as crowd-pleasingly as they do in Sister Act, and with Poiema and Prutsman locking wimples, the occasional hyperbole of Cabrillo Music Theatre’s slogan, “Broadway In Your Backyard,” has never been more apt.

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Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.

–Steven Stanley
April 21, 2017
Photos: Ed Krieger

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