The spectacle of nuns kicking up their heels in disco and rock ‘n’ roll glee must have a limitless attraction for a certain segment of the playgoing public. How else to account for the success of the “Nunsense” franchise?
The “Nunsense” syndrome strongly permeates the Marriott Theatre production of “Sister Act.” We again get a stage full of nuns jiving and joking to music that belongs more in “Soul Train” than the church, sassing their superiors, and exchanging high fives. But unlike the typical inane “Nunsense” frolic, “Sister Act” is a hoot. Indeed, after about 20 minutes of tedious narrative setup, the show is a romping stomping delight.
“Sister Act” originated as a motion picture in 1992 and eventually matriculated into a stage musical in 2011. The show has undergone many permutations since its birth 25 years ago. Songs from the movie were displaced by a new score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. I never saw the film original but I can’t imagine that score was as felicitous as the bundle of joy shouting out at the Marriott.
The basic storyline remains the same as the movie version. A black nightclub singer inadvertently witnesses her gangster boyfriend murdering a stool pigeon. As the only eyewitness, she is a marked woman so the police sequester her disguised as a nun in a local convent.
The movie version was set in Los Angeles. The current stage version takes place in Philadelphia in the late 1970’s, a period that allows the production to outfit itself in 1970’s clothes and reference points (there are plenty of afro hair styles) along with the music of the period. The singer, named Deloris, shakes up the staid convent nuns with her breezy and highly secular attitude. Gradually the nuns fall under her influence, to the dismay of the starchy mother superior. So we have the tumult created by Deloris’s residence in the convent and on the outside the killer boyfriend tracking her down before she testifies against him.
The plot is silly and the Marriott production wisely brushes it aside for long stretches, devoting pride of place to a terrific set of song and dance numbers. Enter choreographer Melissa Zaremba, one of those seriously talented new choreographers who have emerged from the chorus lines of area musical theaters in recent years.
Zaremba has gathered a superior group of young female singer-dancers (with a few males occasionally joining in) and put them through some exuberant dance numbers peppered with delightful creative touches. In “I Could Be That Guy,” a young policeman played by Jonathan Butler-Duplessis belts out a rhythm and blues number while changing in and out of uniform three times. The numbers are enhanced by Nancy Missimi’s dazzling costumes. Who would have believed so many sumptuous outfits could be inspired by a nun’s basic black wearing apparel?
The chorus of nuns is mostly fun and games, led by a five-by-five dynamo named Lillian Castillo, who distinguished herself locally as the leading young lady in “Hairspray” at the Drury Lane Theatre. But the scene-stealer is Tiffany Tatreau, the young lady who made such an impression in the surprise hit “Riding the Cyclone” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Tatreau plays a young novice who has doubts about her calling, powerfully expressed in “The Life I Never Led.” She has an ear grabbing expressive voice and a youthful presence that added just the right amount of serious seasoning to what otherwise was a total lark at the Marriott.
The veteran Hollis Resnik has the unenviable task of playing the hard-nosed mother superior, the spoilsport supervising the high-spirited nuns. It’s a role oozing clichés but Resnik gives it a deft sense of dignity along with some tart wit, plus she can knock out a powerhouse song with the best of her charges.
Don Forston seemed to be having a great time as the diocese monsignor. Forston gets off some hilarious one-liners during the evening and morphs into a rock ‘n’ roll master of ceremonies with a strong tinge of John Travolta. And the gangster’s three henchmen do a knockout number called “”Lady in the Long Black Dress” that deliciously sends up macho men on the make. The number has nothing to do with the rest if the show but who could deny burley Todd Horman (the chief soloist) and Jason Slattery and Mark Hood their moment of well-earned stardom.
The nominal star of the show is Stephanie Umoh, who plays Deloris. She is shackled by the stereotype of the good bad girl early on, but once the music takes over, she dispenses one tingling vocal solo after another, often at the head of the rafter-raising nun chorus.
Glenn Slater’s lyrics are funny and pointed, weaving liturgical references into his words, yet there is never a descent into vulgarity or sacrilege. This isn’t “Book of Mormon” for a Roman Catholic audience. The show even includes a cameo visit by Pope Paul VI.
Guest director Don Stephenson gives Zaremba her head with the dance numbers, correctly identifying that’s where the show works best. Stephenson is a man who knows his business, rightly placing his confidence in the music and dancing.
Along with Missimi’s flavorful costumes, the first rate design credits go to Thomas M. Ryan’s set, Jesse Klug’s lighting, and Robert E. Gilmartin’s sound. Patti Garwood conducts the full-sounding accompanying orchestra with her usual professionalism.
I entered the Marriott with gloomy thoughts of sitting through still another “Nunsense”-type farrago of sappy low comedy. What the Marriott delivered was one of the best entertainments of the season and a breakout showcase Melissa Zaremba’s choreography. What raised the enjoyment level of the evening even higher was the obvious pleasure the performers were taking in the show. Talent plus high energy can produce wonderful things on a stage.