Take Me to Heaven
From the moment audiences walk into the theatre, creatively and beautifully transformed into a Catholic cathedral by talented scenic designer Thomas M. Ryan, they’ll know they’re in for something special. And the creative team, comprised of director Don Stephenson, the incomparable Doug Peck as musical director and some zesty, disco-inspired choreography by Melissa Zaremba, does not ever disappoint. This show’s opening number says it all: “Take Me to Heaven.” And to Heaven this show is headed.
The title conjures up cinematic images of Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith, decked out in wimples and veils, starring in one of the funniest and most financially successful films of the 90’s. In this era of screen-to-stage adaptations, audiences may either be skeptical about another theatrical musical based on a popular movie or they’re be panting with the anticipation of seeing one of their favorite comedies live on stage. Of course, the talented Ms. sister1Goldberg isn’t appearing in this Chicago production, but this show still sparkles and overflows with a sassy joy, love and brilliance. At the Marriott, Deloris Van Cartier, the 70’s nightclub singer who goes into hiding after witnessing a brutal murder, is in the very capable hands of a heavenly new star.
Stephanie Umoh’s Deloris lights up the stage with her dazzling smile, her tough attitude and her terrific comic timing. She also possesses a Broadway belt that easily reaches up to the heavens. Ms. Umoh, whose New York and regional theatre credits are numerous, has all the moves, moxie and magnetism to make audiences fall in love with her and quite possibly forget who originated this role. But more than that, Ms. Umoh’s portrayal of this nun on the run is honest and heartfelt. Her eyes alone tell the audience her entire story.
While Maggie Smith’s Mother Superior was an uptight, pre-Downton Abbey Brit, Chicago’s favorite musical actress, Hollis Resnik, ups the ante by conveying more of the nun’s quiet desperation to save her church and protect her sisters. After butting heads with Deloris, which lead to conversations with God and the parish priest, Monsignor O’Hara (wonderfully and comically played by Don Forston), Mother Superior and Miss Van Cartier, now masquerading as Sister Mary Clarence, ultimately come to understand each other. Ms. Resnik’s stunning musical soliloquy, “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” builds into one of the show’s most moving and memorable numbers.
And that’s saying a lot because the show’s score is filled with exciting, toe-tapping, hand-clapping hits. Sister Mary Clarence’s “Take Me to Heaven,” which opens the musical as a sultry club number, transitions easily into a sensational deistic disco choral performance by the talented ensemble of nuns. The rousing “Raise Your Voice,” “Sunday Morning Fever,” “Fabulous, Baby!” and “Spread the Love Around” nicely show off the talents of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. And Jonathan Butler-Duplessis’ Sweaty Eddie, Deloris‘ big-hearted teddy bear of a police protector, is sweetly genuine and earnest. His big number, “I Could Be That Guy,” is sung with a delightful disco dash and supported by a backup ensemble of street people that turns into a jaw-dropping reverse striptease. Tiffany Tatreau’s sweetly innocent young postulant, Sister Mary Robert, finds her real voice and roars up to the rafters, wailing about “The Life I Never Led.”
With an already built-in following, this production will undoubtedly draw even more believers into its congregation of devoted fans. True, this old-fashioned musical doesn’t break any new ground; that’s not the job of every show. But the Marriott has produced a joyful, family-friendly, warmhearted and very funny evening of entertainment. While celebrating the importance of seeing the world from another person’s point-of-view, this musical is also a tribute to the girl power that grows from a sisterhood of friends. Stephenson’s production absolutely sparkles with heart, humor and, thanks to Nancy Missimi’s blindingly stunning, habit-forming costumes, features more glitter and sequins than Cher’s closet.