By Mariah Reed
Based on the wildly successful 1992 film, the Broadway version of Sister Act was nominated for five Tony Awards, including best musical. With music by multi-Academy, Grammy and Golden Globe Award-winning composer Alan Menken, lyrics by Tony Award-nominee Glenn Slater, a book by multi-Emmy Award winners Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, and additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane, Sister Act is a crowd-pleaser that loosely follows the story of the film which served as a vehicle to showcase the talents of comedienne Whoopi Goldberg.
The Slow Burn Theatre Company’s production, directed by Patrick Fitzwater, rises above the typical formulaic over-the-top musical comedy presentation with nuanced direction, stellar acting, and rousing music that lifts even the gloomiest disposition.
Sister Act begins with struggling singer Deloris Van Cartier singing her heart out in an audition for her gangster boyfriend, Curtis Jackson, who owns a Philadelphia nightclub. But the very-married mobster dismisses her ambition to perform in his establishment. After witnessing her beau murder an informant, a terrified Deloris seeks protection from law enforcement and finds herself sequestered in a convent, of all places.
Deloris begrudgingly agrees to temporarily disguise herself as a nun, but before long she finds true validation with the sisters as she breathes new life into the lackluster choir of the financially destitute church. The sisters are ecstatic as they come to discover their individual talents and abilities along the way.
However, not everyone is thrilled with the upbeat and modernized take on choir performances directed by Deloris. An aghast Mother Superior frets that the sanctity of her convent has been tainted and is convinced that Van Cartier must be relocated. But when the choir begins to achieve real acclaim, raising money that will save the struggling parish, even Monsignor O’Hara is impressed, much to Mother Superior’s chagrin.
The choir attracts enthusiastic crowds, Deloris becomes a media darling, and the exposure threatens to reveal her identity and location.
It isn’t long before her murderous ex learns her whereabouts and sends his henchmen to eliminate the threat, endangering Deloris and her sisters in a comical cat-and-mouse chase scene that pits enraged, protective nuns against the keystone cops’ version of clumsy conmen.
The near disaster leads to a moment of self-awareness for Deloris as she realizes the value of her friendships with the sisters and discovers a purpose that delivers joy and meaning far beyond material fame and fortune.
Mandi Jo John as Deloris is a dream with her gorgeous voice, city-slick swagger, and nuanced acting. John commands the stage with dulcet tones that elicit goosebumps when she professes her sincere love for her sisters.
Paulette Oliva as Mother Superior shines as she alternates between earnest prayers for guidance from above and impeccably timed deadpan insults aimed at her wayward guest. Olivia is an expert song stylist, and her solos are beautifully interpreted odes to her faith and frustration.
Mikayla Cohen, as Sister Mary Robert, delivers the production’s most powerful and inspiring moment when her paralyzingly timid character finally lets loose and belts out her desire to find her true calling in “The Life I Never Led.” At the performance this reviewer attended a wildly enthusiastic audience leapt to their feet at the end of Cohen’s solo, clapping furiously and cheering her on.
While his voice is commanding and technically arresting, David L. Murray Jr. as police detective Eddie Souther (Sweaty Eddie) struggles to achieve the necessary romantic chemistry that defines his character’s relationship with Deloris. Therefore, when Eddie confesses his love to her it feels surprising and a bit hollow.
Chaz Rose as Curtis sings with a smooth-as-silk baritone that channels Barry White while he seduces the audience with his sexy Temptations moves. His comical goons (Darius J. Manuel as DJ, Gianfranco Imbert as Pablo, and Ryan Crout as Joey) stumble over one another as they back up their boss with hilarious choreography that has the three dramatizing various ways in which Curtis dreams of murdering his former mistress. (All “violence” in the play is made comical with slapstick choreography that reinforces the family-friendly nature of this production.)
The Slow Burn Theatre’s production sizzles with beautiful, period-appropriate costumes including pink sequined boots, feathery bell-bottom pants, and sky-high platform shoes. Gangster Curtis’ goons are a riot of colors and patterns in their mismatched suits and ties. As the choir’s public acclaim rises, so does the amount of sparkle and sass in their tunics, headpieces, and choreography. The effect is complete with properties that hearken back to the 1970s and hairdos that channel Keith Partridge and Marcia Brady.
Kudos to musical director Wilkie Ferguson for balanced harmonies, excellent diction in group numbers, and heart-rending dynamics that bring the audience to tears at moments such as Deloris’ affecting ode to self-discovery in “Sister Act.”
Director Fitzwater expertly balances outrageous physical comedy with tender, earnest moments that keep the audience emotionally engaged. Choreography is evocative of the 1970s and comically salacious when our nuns grow increasingly enthusiastic as they describe their passion for The Lord.
Scenic transitions are made smooth with the use of wagons, projections, and backdrops swiftly lowered into place from the flies. While properties are realistic and convincing for the most part, the illusion is broken when mobster Curtis brandishes a “pistol” featuring a red plug at the end of the barrel. This is indicative of a prop gun, and this reviewer couldn’t help but wonder why the red wasn’t masked with black tape or paint.
Nevertheless, this poignant production goes far beyond simple entertainment as it moves the audience with its enthusiastic cadre of endearing characters and well-developed relationships that resonate with tenderness. Will you have a great time watching this amusing romp? Yes. But you will also walk away feeling a wistful tugging in your heart for genuine, caring relationships that transcend the material world and celebrate true friendship.
Mariah Reed is an Equity actress, produced playwright and tenured theatre professor.
Sister Act presented by Slow Burn Theatre Company runs through Feb. 18 at the Amaturo Theater, Broward Center For The Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets start at $54. Performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 1 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.; Wednesday, Feb. 14, at 7:30 p.m. Call 954-462-0222 for tickets, at www.browardcenter.org or in person at the Broward Center’s Auto Nation Box Office. Info at www.slowburntheatre.org.