The hills round Simi are alive with the sound of singing nuns as the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center treats audiences to the Broadway crowd-pleaser Sister Act, one of SVPAC’s best productions ever.

 Like the 1992 movie that inspired it, Sister Act The Musical places its hapless heroine, bodacious nightclub chantooze Deloris Van Cartier (Elizabeth Adabale in a star-making performance), 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 (Stephanie Lesh-Farrell, giving Adabale’s Deloris as good as she gets).

 Less expected, perhaps, is how very quickly the reluctant Mary Clarence bonds with her fellow nuns, most particularly with incurably upbeat Sister Mary Patrick (Bryce Hamilton), the ever crotchety Sister Mary Lazarus (Sindy McKay), and meek-and-mild postulant Sister Mary Robert (Julianne Sillona).

 Given the task of whipping the convent’s unharmonious choir into musical shape, the nun formerly known as Deloris finds her coaching so effective that before you know it, Sunday parishioners are filling the pews like never before.

Meanwhile, police detective Eddie Souther (Jeremy Whatley), who engineered Deloris’s convent hideout, begins to worry that media attention will give away her safe haven and have her gangster boyfriend Curtis (Richard Gray) and his Three Stooges henchmen Joey (Philip McBride), Pablo (Augusto Guardado), and TJ (Alexander Reaves) 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 match 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.

Director Fred Helsel brings out the best in his splendiferous cast, fine-tuning performances inspired by (but not carbon copies of) the movie originals, and reveals a particular gift for physical comedy in an eleventh-hour chase sequence that doesn’t miss a laugh.

 Leading lady Adabale steps out of the chorus and into the star vehicle that’s been awaiting her since her 2013 USC graduation, and what a fabulous Deloris she makes, not just in glitter and glitz but in basic black as well. Not only does Adabale sing up a storm, she gives Sister Mary Clarence equal parts sizzle and sass, plus terrific opposites-repel chemistry with an absolutely splendid Lesh-Farrell, acing Mother Superior’s acerbic retorts with the best of them, vocalizing in a rich mezzo, and singing the living blazes out of “Haven’t Got A Prayer.”

 Hamilton’s incurably perky Sister Mary Patrick, McCay’s crochety, unexpectedly rhyme-busing Sister Mary Lazarus, Alexandra Gonzales’s waaay-over-the-hill Sister Mary Theresa, and Mary Alice Brady’s gone-bonkers-and-beyond Sister Mary Martin Of Tours all have their scene-stealing moments, and just wait till Sillona’s quiet-as-a-church-mouse Sister Mary Roberts breaks out of her shell with a rafters-reaching “The Me I Never Knew.”

McBride’s wannabe Casanova of a Joey, dance captain Guardado’s ponytailed thinks-he’s-Señor-Rico-Suave of a Pablo, and Reaves’s dimmest bulb of a TJ scores multiple laughs in addition to giving your favorite ‘70s boy-group a run for their money with a smooth as silk “Lady In A Long Black Dress.”

Whatley shows off the evening’s silkiest male pipes (and some mean dance moves) as the sweetest of “Sweaty” Eddies, Tara Cox (Michelle) and Shandar Robinson (Tina) provide spicy backup to lead-singer Deloris, and Gray’s hard-as-nails Curtis, Chris Clonts’s change-embracing Monsignor O’Hara, and Justin James’s wrong-place-wrong-time Pablo get featured prominently as well.

 Laila Abdo, Arame Fall, Joann Gilliam, Cailtyn Rose Massey, Africa Turner, and Kaitlyn Wolf show off song-and-dance talents and nuns and more, and Paul Duffy and Sam Machado execute various male cameos to amusing effect.

 Choreographer Keenon Hooks gets all of the above shaking their groove things to do the ‘70s proud, with a bit of Michael Bennett and Busby Berkeley thrown in for good measure, and musical director Mazie Rudolph elicits top-notch cast vocals while conducting Sister Act’s live orchestra. (No canned music here.)

 Seth Kamenow’s multi-locale scenic design frames Ken Patton’s multitude of disco-era costumes and Luis Ramirez’s equally nostalgic wigs, Andrew Schmedake lights the stage with pizzazz, and sound designer Kevin Kahm ensures a spot-on mix of instrumentals and amped vocals.

Sister Act is produced by Helsel and David Ralphe. Rehyan Rivera is assistant choreographer. Adam Ramirez is costume assistant.

 I’ve seen plenty of big-stage, big-budget Sister Acts, but there’s something quite special about SVCAC’s smaller-scale, more intimately staged take on the international smash. Most importantly, with Elizabeth Adabale and Stephanie Lesh-Farrell rivaling the best Deloris Van Cartiers and Mothers Superior before them, L.A. and Ventura County audiences are guaranteed one heaven of a good time.

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Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley. Through February 18. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00. Reservations: 805 583-7900

–Steven Stanley
February 4, 2018
Photos: Jon Neftali Photography


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