SISTER ACT, playing last night to a packed preview audience at the Omaha Community Playhouse, is a simple story about nuns in wimples who are taught to let loose in song by a nightclub singer who is cloistered at the convent in hiding from the hoods. This story isn't just black and white. Well, maybe it is. But this foot stomping musical set in 1970's Philadelphia is fun, no matter what.
The musical SISTER ACT, written by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, is based on the 1992 film version starring Whoopi Goldberg. This multiple award-winning creative team has impressive credentials to their names. The Steinkellners wrote the TV sitcom, CHEERS, which most American households will recognize and can sing its theme song. Composer Alan Menken, best known for his work with Disney, has produced some of the most well known and beloved songs of this generation. He has garnered 8 Academy Awards. Glenn Slater, lyricist for TANGLED among other Disney films, was most recently nominated for Best Original Score for the Broadway musical, SCHOOL OF ROCK in 2016.
Nominated for the Tony Award, Laurence Olivier Award, and Drama Desk Award in numerous categories, SISTER ACT failed to capture a single award in 2010 or 2011. Patina Miller, who debuted on Broadway in the role of Deloris Van Cartier, was nominated for (and should have won) Best Actress in a Musical, and is my current favorite in a TV series, "Madame Secretary." Although it is no longer on Broadway, SISTER ACT is alive and well on the theater circuit, bringing audiences to their feet.
So let's just agree that this is a solid basis for a winning musical. These creative geniuses took a story about a nightclub singer who witnesses a murder and is hiding out in a convent, added a catchy musical score and witty lyrics, and made it come alive in the flesh.
Now all we need to recreate this musical successfully are a great cast who can sing and move, a wonderful set and lighting, good orchestra, glitzy costumes, and savvy directors to put it all together.
Do we have it? Yes. And it's "Fabulous, Baby!"
Honestly, I wasn't convinced they were going to pull it off during the first couple of numbers, but by, "Here Within These Walls," I was hooked. Mother Superior, nicely played by Judy Anderson, sounded sure and confident. She is a pro who goes full throttle. After thinking to myself, 'wow, she sounds great,' I was absorbed into this convent of Catholics with bad guys and good cops weaving in and out.
Deloris Van Cartier/Sister Mary Clarence, embodied by the likeable Zhomontee Watson, gives a fun performance with her offbeat humor, strong soulful voice, and spunky attitude. Her voice is most impressive in the lower range where she hits her sweet spot. Watson has a natural gift for comedy, making her a solid choice for this role.
Cork Ramer is a treat as Monsignor O'Hara. His speaking voice is rich and resonant and when he goes into his Barry White voice, the audience erupts!
Marcel Daly, recently seen at the Rose Theater as Prince Eric in LITTLE MERMAID, has one of the finest male singing voices in Omaha. As Eddie he is charming, but what sets him apart are his vocal cords.
The three main sisters, Sister Mary Patrick (Sara Mattix), Sister Mary Lazarus (Sally Neumann Scamfer), and Sister Mary Robert (Melissa King) are so close to the film originals, it is uncanny. They capture the essence of these familiar characters. The audience responded with audible delight upon hearing their voices for the first time. King delivers one of the best songs of the night when she sings "The Life I Never Led," with such clarity and beauty. You can hear Alan Menken's trademark Disney sound in this piece.
I have to mention the guys. When TJ (Jonathan Smith), Pablo (Adam Fulbright) and Joey (Brendan Brown) sing about seducing the "Lady in the Long Black Dress," they get the biggest applause. They are ridiculous. They are entertaining! Jonathan Smith is magnetic on stage. He is the most likely the kid who grew up in the center of everyone's attention because he is just that fun to watch. Leading the bad guys is Brian Priesman as Curtis, Deloris' ex-married boyfriend who shows his character in vivid color when he gives her his wife's cast off garish blue fur jacket.
SISTER ACT is non stop movement and sound. Melanie Walters turns the nuns into a glitzy show choir, complete with synchronized movements. Combined with Georgiann Regan's fine costumes, the show is a feast for eyes and ears. One costume will be sure to catch your attention for its unexpected creativity and function.
Jim Othuse creates set designs that move smoothly from brick walled buildings to sleazy cityscapes to a tranquil church. There is always something moving in, sliding out, or Lowering. It is all seamless movement.
One thing I greatly appreciated about this cast is their enunciation. The jokes and lyrics are so important to the story. If we couldn't understand what they were saying/singing, we would miss a huge part of the show. The Steinkellners and Glenn Slater are masters at working with words. Their one-liners are sometimes not unexpected, but they are always funny. Their song lyrics are cleverly crafted. A good sound system is also critical to appreciating the cleverness of this production. Tim Burkhart comes through, ensuring everything is crystal clear.
It would be a sin to miss this show. Do whatever you need to do to get down to the Omaha Community Playhouse and indulge in a 2½ hour bit of guilt-free feel good. (And don't miss musical director Jim Boggess' shenanigans in the orchestra pit!)
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