Courtesy of The Croswell Opera House
Big and glitzy musical numbers are the cream of the crop when it comes to Broadway musicals and stage adaptations. Now, let's take that formula, throw a little hip-hop and nuns into the mix and you get something like “Sister Act” a production inspired by the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg comedy.
At least to me, The Croswell’s current production, which had myself and audiences rolling on opening night, seemed to offer more than the 1992 sleeper hit did. That’s probably because Crystal Lynn as Deloris Van Cartier or Natasha Ricketts as Sister Mary Patrick burst on stage with an insane belt, terrific comedic timing, and rock solid stage presence. Equally, “Sister Act” isn’t another retread, instead boasting catchy songs by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast”) and lyricist Glenn Slater with an endearing company ready to earn those laughs. Though some of the script's more thoughtless jargon and comic jabs could’ve used some revisions, “Sister Act” is a gratifying late summer addition to The Croswell lineup.
The musical only benefits from the contributions made by Slater and Menken especially since the story’s been moved from contemporary Reno to 1978 Philadelphia thus allowing the music to have the freedom in exploring the decade’s styles. Music director Dave Rains and his impressive crew of musicians do a great job evoking Menken’s lush and funky sounds of Philly, which can be witnessed in the first song, “Take Me to Heaven” as it starts off like a soulful R&B ballad before taking a hilarious turn with Lynn’s powerful voice right there to guide us through.
Aside from those minor liberties changed from the motion picture, the basic plot remains intact: After seeing her gangster boyfriend Curits (Alan Owens - towering and exceptional) murder an FBI informant, struggling singer Deloris Van Cartier (Lynn) is placed under witness protection inside a local church run by nuns. Much to the dismay of Mother Superior - Mary Rumman clearly having a blast with tunes like “Here Within These Walls” - Deloris begins shaping the nuns’ off-key choir which needs a touch of personality.
Director Matthew D Bowland’s production has managed to come together quite nicely, and aside from the occasional light miscue, or the scripts lull in the second act - “Sister Act” moves fairly quickly. Hardly does it drag, and (most) of the troupes it relies on land. You want to see a combination of an old lady rapping and old nun rapping? Well it’s off the charts here, with the cast managing to give this otherwise flimsy narrative some spark of life.
Most notably is the scene stealing Natasha Rickets as the optimistic and eternally bubbly Sister Mary Patrick. Ricketts - whose played this role before - not only manages to brighten the stage, but also proves to be an energetic tour de force with “It’s Good to Be a Nun” and provides hefty vocal chops in “Raise your Voice” which - alongside Lynn - all but had the audience on their feet before it was even over.
As for the rest of the cast: Brittany Nicol playing Sister Mary Robert raises her very capable voice for “The Life I Never Led;” Anthony Isom scores big laughs as the good natured police officer Eddie Souther (“Sweaty Eddie”) who has the biggest crush on Cartier; and finally Drew Nauden, WIll DuPuis, and Xavier Sarabia are a blast as Curtis’s foolish henchmen stumbling from scene to scene with a Three Stooges like attitude, with their song “Lady in the Long Black Dress” notching some of the biggest roars of the evening.
Everyone is having fun in “Sister Act” and each role - no matter how small - leaves a lasting impression. They even manage to shoulder some of the more glaring technical hiccups with a sense of positivity (there was one instance where I was sure one of the stage hands was going to ram into a member of the cast during a messy scene transition) and the performers plowed through with a smile.
Scenic designer Barley H Bauer adds a colorful touch that pays respect to the film while also offering something new to Croswell audiences, the same is said for Pam Krage’s disco inspired costuming complete with the standard entourage of sparkly go-go boots that won’t soon be forgotten. Their work complements the efforts of Choreographer Breah Duschl (with assistance from Ricketts) who provide animated and rich movements for this dedicated cast. Projections by Crosby Slube are a fine addition, as well as Chris Gooseman’s effectively balanced sound design.
While most of Bowland’s production goes off rather smoothly, there were some areas in the script that were out of his control. Specifically, some of the jabs at Van Cartier’s ethnicity didn’t always land and seemed downright insensitive. Considering the film version mostly ignored the racial tension inherent in its plot, I was surprised at how much Cheri & Bill Steinkiller’s script took its 1970s setting to heart without trying to utilize it in a positive way. Made apparent by the flagrant acknowledgement of Deloris’ race by the Sisters when her true identity is revealed (“You’re not Catholic, not a nun, but you are a Negro?...We like that part of you.”)
No question that line scored howls, and I don’t think the writers intended it to be malicious, but I couldn’t think of what the production gained from that moment other than one giant laugh. I’m sure if you asked the writers they’d say it would be the Sisters accepting Van Cartier for who she is. And that’s probably true, but couldn’t that moment have been framed a touch differently?
Then again this is “Sister Act” we’re talking about here, and I highly doubt most, if not all, of the musical is meant to be taken seriously. Clearly The Croswell’s creative team and cast infuse their show with a sense of glee and joy, and for those looking for a hysterical afternoon or evening of theatre, don’t be surprised if these zestful and enthusiastic Sisters of Queen of Angels Convent convert you for their cause.
The Croswell’s production of “Sister Act” continues through August 18th - to purchase tickets and to see showtimes head to Croswell.org.